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0808 PD: How do consumers perceive animal welfare?

Biley Norwood Published on 19 May 2008

Ten years ago, farm animal welfare was rarely discussed in livestock circles.

Today, however, animal welfare is gaining the title of most-important-and-debated livestock issue. On one side are animal rights groups conducting expensive anti-agriculture campaigns and sending undercover investigators to work on farms and harvesting facilities. On the other side are farmers and food companies, some of whom defend current production practices and others who have changed their practices in response to animal welfare concerns. In the middle are consumers, who until we conducted our survey in the summer of 2007, had been largely ignored.

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While our survey was funded by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the federation allowed us, Oklahoma State University researchers, complete control over the survey design, implementation and reporting of results. We can assure you there was no industry agenda in this survey, other than to understand what consumers really think. U.S. citizens were randomly selected for participation and contacted by phone to participate in the survey. Over 1,000 survey responses were received from a sample of individuals whose demographics closely match the country as a whole, providing a number of important insights.

Consumers indicate that farm animal welfare is a low priority relative to food safety, the environment and the financial well-being of U.S. farmers. In fact, the financial well-being of farmers is twice as important as animal well-being, suggesting that any public policy seeking to improve animal welfare will only be beneficial to taxpayers as a whole if it has minimal economic impact on farmers. Food safety is five times more important than animal welfare, which explains why animal rights groups frequently attempt to link animal welfare with food safety.

This does not imply that farm animal welfare is not important, though. As shown in Table 1*, most Americans believe animal welfare should be given some concern even in the presence of human suffering, and indicate that high standards of care are more important than low meat prices. They also believe the capacity for animal suffering is similar to that of humans. This result suggests that when consumers see pictures of gestation crates and battery cages they imagine how they would feel in such confinements and project those feelings onto the animals. Thus, it is no surprise that a majority of survey respondents said that confining animals to cages is inhumane.

Another portion of the survey measured what consumers believe animals need to have a decent life.

Consumers indicated treatment for injury and disease as the most important provision for animal care. As the pie chart (Figure 1*) shows, treatment for injury and disease is almost as important as all other items combined. The ability of animals to go outdoors and exhibit natural behaviors was more important than items like protection from other animals, shelter at a comfortable temperature and comfortable bedding. Consumers seem to associate a happy animal life as one with a similar environment to wild animals, where outdoors and freedom are in ample supply, but shelter, comfortable temperature and protection are not.

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Not surprisingly, consumers associate large farms and corporate farms with lower standards of animal care compared to small farms. Also, 64 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “farmers and food companies put their own profits ahead of treating farm animals humanely.” A majority also indicated they think food companies would voluntarily improve animal welfare if consumers really wanted it. Despite their faith in the profit motive to address animal welfare concerns, a large majority still said they would vote for a law requiring farmers to treat animals more humanely. Perhaps ironically, they believe in the power of markets to respond to consumer concerns and simultaneously desire more regulation.

Providing hogs, chickens and cattle with a more content life is unlikely to change the food product in any significant way. Yet the vast majority of consumers believe it will improve both the taste and the safety of the product. Do not dismiss this as just a lack of agricultural understanding. Scientific research has provided ample evidence that if a consumer believes a product is supposed to taste better, it will indeed taste better to the individual. The difference may be psychological in nature, but it is real.

This begs the question of whether consumers express a concern for animal welfare out of altruism or the desire for a better food product. It also indicates that advertising higher animal welfare standards as a superior food product may help producers extract a larger premium.

One should always use caution in interpreting surveys. In surveys, people overestimate their willingness-to-pay higher prices, they tend to give answers they feel are socially desirable, they often attempt to tell the researchers what they think the researchers want to hear, and survey respondents consider themselves above-average morally and ethically. Despite these biases, much information can be gleaned from talking to consumers. Livestock industries should pay close attention to these survey results when formulating industry and firm strategy. Successful firms understand their consumers well. Hopefully, these survey results will improve our understanding of the food consumer. PD

References omitted but are available upon request at

Table and Figure omitted but are availalbe upon request to .

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Bailey Norwood
Associate Professor at
Oklahoma University

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