Instead of a muddy field, Tesco chose the National Motorcycle Museum in Solihull as its venue of choice. And, despite the less than glamorous location, Tesco had probably the most glamorous shareholder turn up, in the shape of celebrity TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
Offering River Cottage biscuits to draw the shareholders into his pre-AGM conference, Fearnley-Whittingstall demanded that Tesco needs to place greater emphasis on its chicken welfare, stating: “You can’t budget your way out of an ethical issue.”
Inside the AGM, Fearnley-Whittingstall and his crew stole the show with several shareholders asking very similar chicken-related questions. One shareholder who wanted to ask about Tesco’s sale-and-leaseback strategy, even felt it appropriate to attempt an impression of a chicken before asking his question, seeing as that seemed to be the theme of the day.
“I’m here because I eat chicken,” announced Fearnley-Whittingstall. “And 75 per cent of Tesco’s chickens are from standard intensive farming, which does not adhere to the RSPCA’s freedom farm standards.”
A round of applause followed,and Tesco chairman David Reid offered up several poultry suppliers to the supermarket to talk about welfare practices.
The matter wasn’t closed there, though. Many other shareholders raised the chicken questions until the audience groaned each time someone mentioned the feathered creatures. One shareholder even chanted “No, No, No”, as yet another chicken question was answered.
Tesco revealed that it would work with Defra to organise a forum to talk about the chicken welfare issues, which seemed to please the rowdy crowd. After yet another question, chief executive Sir Terry Leahy said: “We are not below Defra standards. The Government sets the standards and it is wrong to conduct this discussion on the basis that Tesco is pursuing unacceptable practices.
“It is not helpful to hurl unsubstantiated statements to the floor because we’ll just hurl back conflicting ones.”
While Fearnley-Whittingstall failed to win 75 per cent of the vote to push his resolution through to force Tesco to adhere to the RSCPA freedom farm standards on all chickens, he did secure 9.88 per cent of shareholders’ backing and regarded that as a triumph.
“With the abstention votes, we expect to be over 10 per cent and Tesco can’t ignore that,” said Fearnley-Whittingstall. “We’re encouraged that poultry farmers are moving the issue of welfare forward, but disappointed that Tesco feels it is not its responsibility to make change – but that it is down to the Government.”
Fearnley-Whittingstall said he is hopeful that any summit with Defra and Tesco will move the issue forward and left feeling that his time in sunny Solihull was well spent.
Other issues such as Care for the Wild’s turtle campaign in China and the United Food and Commercial Workers’ (UFCW) union got less of a look-in.
While Tesco explained that its Fresh & Easy workers in the US were happy and not interested in joining a union, the UFCW asked for dialogue. A UFCW union spokesman said afterwards: “We have been asked to leave the matter with the company for them to consider. I am happy to take the company at its word.”
He also added: “Tesco paused its Fresh & Easy expansion in the US. We are now taking a pause in our campaign so Terry Leahy can reflect on what we have said.”
The chickens, the unions and the turtles soon took second place after the AGM when the sandwiches came out. There was a bun fight for the free bags for life and assorted groceries and many of the elderly shareholders mumbled that the chickens took too much attention.
One shareholder said: “I have been going to AGMs for years and these meetings are for serious issues. We don’t get much time to speak to the directors and we don’t want it overtaken by one man and his chickens.”
Fearnley-Whittingstall may have stolen the show, but Tesco’s shareholders will still come back without the River Cottage biscuits.