Why are consumers asking for assurances about animal welfare?

Oct 22, 2010
by WLJ

The discussion about animal welfare focuses on the biology of the animal and the values of humans.

The public is not demanding to know where food comes from because it has figured that out. The public wants to be assured that the people who produce food can be trusted to care for animals and to use onfarm technology responsibly and sustainably.

Ninety-six percent of consumers say that they support raising cattle for food only if ranchers provide good care for their animals and treat them humanely. The underlying question for this discussion would be why are consumers asking for assurances about animal welfare?

Like farmers and ranchers, consumers in the U.S. are not a homogeneous entity.

Examples of consumers by age groups include: 1) the Establishment who were born between 1909 and 1945 and are defined by the Great Depression, the New Deal and WWII; 2) the Baby Boomers who were born between 1946 and 1964 and are defined by Vietnam, Woodstock, and Watergate; 3) Generation X who were born between 1965 and 1978 and are pragmatic, savvy, resilient and are the smallest segment of the population, and; 4) the Millenials born from 1979 to present, defined by the events of O.J.

Simpson, Monica Lewinsky and Columbine High School.

These younger consumers have been born in a time of national affluence, and seek instant gratification. They may not see the consequences of their behavior and often, their behavior differs from that of their grandparents’ values.

Focus group research reveals that consumers know very little about the agricultural supply chain, and in particular, they are deliberately ignorant of anything that happens between slaughter and consumption.

There are at least two reasons for this: 1) guilt— consumers feel guilty about eating meat, specifically because the animals are killed for the consumer’s benefit and; 2) lack of cooking—despite a movement to more traditional cooking methods that has occurred in recent times, large pro portions of consumers still do not cook from scratch.

The result is distance from food altogether as they never handle raw materials or relate food products to their natural state.

The only area that consumers do know—and want to know about—is the rearing and living stage prior to slaughter.

By feeling that animals have been treated well at this stage, it helps to alleviate the guilt that consumers feel about consumption.

This, in turn, drives the demand for higher welfare standards.

Dr. Gary Smith from Colorado State University (CSU) showed in the 1980s consumers wanted beef that had acceptable taste, was convenient to prepare, nutritious, and a variety of cuts could be purchased at a reasonable price.

Today, consumers still want these same traits, but now they also want assurances about the environment, social causes, and animal welfare. The term “story beef” has come into vogue because consumers are asking questions about how the livestock producers raised the beef.

For example, did the producer live nearby, did he treat ranch workers fairly, did he practice environmental stewardship, did the ranch operate sustainably, did the producer receive a fair price, and did he properly care for the animals?

When consumers were asked what they would like to know from farmers about food production that they currently did not know, 68 percent said they wanted to know what farmers were doing to ensure animal care. Three-fourths of grocery shoppers indicated that they wanted information about the content, origin and how food was grown, processed and manufactured.

University of California researchers asked shoppers to evaluate five potential food label claims, and “humane” was the most often top-ranked choice, above “locally grown,” “living wage,” “U.S. grown,” or “small-scale farm.”

In a survey from The Ohio State University, 59 percent of Ohioans said they would be willing to pay more for meat, poultry or dairy labeled as coming from humanely treated animals. Among those, 43 percent said they would pay 10 percent more, and 12 percent said they would pay 25 percent more if they were assured of humane animal treatment. Women account for 93 percent of U.S. food purchases and feel a strong emotional attachment to beef.

“Ninety-five percent of the respondents agreed with the statement, ´It is important to me that animals on farms are well cared for.´”

One emotional response that resonates with women is the fact that most beef comes from family farms, and that farmers’ care about their animals.

The three emotional pillars that female shoppers want from beef include: 1) the assurance that family ranchers care about their animals and beef quality; 2) that oversight from US-DA and the Food and Drug Administration assures that today’s beef is safer than ever and; 3) the shopper wants control over foodpurchasing decisions. Perception may be more important than reality.

For example, results of a survey published by Whole Foods Market in 2010 showed that 38 percent of shoppers chose natural or organic meat because they believe it provides for better health of their families and better treatment of the animal. The category “animal treatment” ranked third highest among nine meat selection criteria.

But we should remember that food labels might confuse and mislead shoppers.

When Consumer Reports asked what consumers thought a “naturally” raised label on a meat product should mean, 85 percent said that the product came from an animal raised in a natural environment, 77 percent said it came from an animal that had access to the outdoors, and 76 percent said that the animal had been treated humanely.

In order to help reduce confusion, it has been suggested that livestock producers should become more sensitive to the words we use in livestock production. For example don’t say, “feed additive,” but rather say “feed supplement” or don’t say “cattle feeder,” but rather “farmer” and finally stop saying “conventional beef,” but rather “traditional beef.”

Whom do consumers trust for humane treatment of farm animals?

Janice Swanson from Michigan State University in a presentation at the 2010 Montana Nutrition Conference said that consumers trust people who resemble themselves most, followed by advocacy groups, farmers/producers, federal regulatory agencies, grocery stores, restaurants and, lastly food companies and processors.

Consumers assign to farmers and advocacy groups more responsibility for the humane treatment of farm animals than to any other group.

An animal’s welfare, whether on a farm, in transit, at an auction market or at a place of slaughter, should be considered in terms of the “five freedoms” hich include: 1) freedom from hunger and thirst; 2) freedom from discomfort; 3) freedom from pain, injury or disease; 4) freedom to express normal behavior and; 5) freedom from fear and distress.

Of more than 1,000 respondents to a 2007 Oklahoma State University survey, 52 percent said personal food choices have a large impact on the wellbeing of farm animals, and 49 percent said they consider the well-being of farm animals when they make food-purchasing decisions. Ninety-five percent of the respondents agreed with the statement, “It is important to me that animals on farms are well cared for.”

One study clearly demonstrated the importance placed on various animal husbandry issues. In this study, 38.4 percent of respondents wanted animals to receive ample food and water, while 29 percent wanted animals to receive treatment for disease and injury.

Another national survey summarized the attitudes of animal science faculty who are responsible for educating future livestock managers about animal husbandry practices.

Clearly, their beliefs are similar to consumers’ responses in other studies with 98 percent saying agricultural animals should have freedom from thirst most of the time, 98 percent saying agricultural animals should have freedom from injury and disease (or prompt treatment should they arise), and 89 percent saying animals should have freedom from unnecessary fear and/distress.

Overall, animal science faculty believed that the predominant methods used to produce various types of animal products do provide appropriate levels of welfare (51 percent for layer birds, 66 percent for swine, 84 percent for dairy, and 87 percent for beef). Results from this survey also found that there were significant relationships due to gender and political ideology. Women and faculty who held more liberal political views were more concerned about farm animal welfare issues.

For many of us that were university trained, our mantra has always been that our recommendations to livestock producers and consumers are based on sound science. Scientists attempt to address bias by testing hypotheses with predictive models or controlled experiments that affect one or more variables, statistical analysis of data, transparency in reporting of methods and results, critical appraisal in peer review of manuscripts before publication, and replication of results by researchers in other environments.

Bernard Rollin, an ethicist from CSU, believes that this argument misses the point. He argues that consumers are not asking how to raise swine in confinement, but rather should we raise swine in confinement? For this question, science is irrelevant. — John Paterson, Montana State University Extension/Beef Cattle Specialist