Current Progressive Cattle digital edition

What consumers expect when it comes to animal welfare

Progressive Cattle Editor Carrie Veselka Published on 06 July 2020

What does animal welfare mean? Take a look at any industry publication, conference agenda or panel discussion – this topic is bound to come up.

From the writings and research of the likes of Temple Grandin to conversations around the dinner table, the topic of animal welfare is constantly on the minds of producers and industry experts alike – something that is not changing any time soon. Animal welfare is also a hot topic with consumers, where public opinion can swell from indifference to outrage and back again with little urging and little or no evidence or knowledge. 

Whether we like it or not, consumer opinion matters when it comes to animal production. In a Cattlemen’s College session at the 2020 National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) National Convention and Trade Show, Shawn Darcy, director of market research with NCBA and Dr. Lily Edwards-Callaway, an assistant professor of livestock behavior and welfare at Colorado State University, teamed up to share their findings on consumer perceptions and expectations of animal welfare in the beef industry. 

Darcy said that according to an NCBA survey, 27% of consumers say they are familiar with how cattle are raised. “That means that 73% of people are openly admitting that they know nothing about how cattle are raised,” Darcy said, adding that, judging by the conversations in the focus groups, many consumers who may consider themselves knowledgeable about the beef production cycle might not actually know as much as they think they do. “Consumers are thinking about these things, but they’re coming from a place of low familiarity, so thinking ahead to communication, how are we communicating on topics like the environment, animal welfare, antibiotic resistance and things like that when most consumers don’t even know how cattle are raised?” 

Darcy said just over 60% of consumers are concerned about how cattle are raised, with the bulk of that concern concentrated on animal welfare. When surveyed, 43% of consumers believe that cattle spend their entire life in confinement. 

Animal welfare protocols 

Edwards-Callaway said that animal welfare can be regarded as a public good – something that everyone can enjoy, whether they utilize it or not. “Everyone benefits from animals being treated well, whether they eat meat or not, whether they raise animals or not; it is something valuable to them as being part of society,” she said.

Developing guidelines for animal welfare has taken decades. The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) has set standards for animal health and welfare. Animal welfare, as described by the OIE, is how an animal is coping with the conditions in which it lives. An animal is in a good state of welfare if it is healthy, comfortable, well-nourished, safe, able to express innate behavior and if it is not suffering from unpleasant states such as pain, fear and distress.

Edwards-Callaway said animal welfare could be simplified down to five things animals need to be considered in good welfare. This list, called the Five Freedoms, was codified by the Farm Animal Welfare Council in 1979:

  • Freedom from hunger and thirst
  • Freedom from discomfort
  • Freedom from pain, injury and disease
  • Freedom to express normal behavior
  • Freedom from fear and distress

Some critics of these tenets contended that the Five Freedoms were too absolute, so decades later, they adapted them into five opportunities, which are broader and give consideration to the positive and the negative for each category:

  • Opportunity for a well-balanced diet
  • Opportunity to self-maintain
  • Opportunity for optimal health
  • Opportunity to express species-specific behavior
  • Opportunity for choice and control

Edwards-Callaway said animal welfare should be based around what the animal needs, not what the producer can or wants to provide. “We need to make sure that we are considering what’s important to the animal versus what’s important to us,” she said. “We all have our different value systems, which is going to impact how we make those choices, but I think, ultimately, we need to consider the animal.”

Producer and consumer communication

Animal welfare science has come a long way, as have day-to-day welfare practices by the beef industry as a whole and at the individual producer level. Now that there is a wealth of knowledge about the science of animal welfare, the question remains, how can the beef industry communicate the efforts that are being made in this area to consumers that seem to be caring more about this topic than they ever have?

The most important fact to remember is that consumers tend to believe people, not government agencies or large companies when it comes to sensitive topics like animal welfare. Darcy said that consumers generally prefer a personal testimonial when it comes to learning about how animals are treated on the ranch, although they prefer any technical data or information they receive to be backed by an agency like the USDA. “They’re going to more nontraditional sources to get their information, whether it’s a trusted grocery store, a chef at a restaurant, online bloggers – things along those lines – to get their information.” 

Farmers and ranchers rate pretty high as a trustworthy source about animal welfare. “When we do focus groups, I can’t tell you how many times people will be bashing the industry on all this ’inhumane treatment,’” Darcy said. “Then we’ll show them a video or an article about this farm or ranch and everything they are doing right, and they just stop in their tracks and say something like, ‘Well I’m not talking about them, I’m talking about everyone else.’ So farmers and ranchers are very credible, and people want to hear from them, as well as the other people involved like veterinarians, nutritionists and universities that are doing all this research. People want to hear from those trusted sources.”

Darcy said another key discovery from the discussions with focus groups is that consumers like knowing programs like the BQA exist and that producers are working hard to stick to those guidelines to produce high-quality products. “They don’t really need a ton of detail. They want to know that the animals are treated well, but that’s enough for them.”  end mark

PHOTO: One indicator of good welfare is when animals feel comfortable enough to express natural behavior. Photo by Lynn Jaynes.

Carrie Veselka
  • Carrie Veselka

  • Editor
  • Progressive Cattle
  • Email Carrie Veselka