The author is a professor of agriculture, food, and resource economics at Michigan State University.

In recent years, there has been growing scrutiny on animal welfare practices. While much of the focus has been on the pork and poultry industries, undercover videos and welfare campaigns have also targeted the dairy sector. Farm animal welfare is no longer a fringe issue.

Consumers expect a safe, reliable, affordable food supply, which U.S. farmers have and will continue to provide. The general population has little connection to modern commercial agriculture, and therefore, essentially no context to understand production practices to deliver food to their table.

Surveys consistently reveal a high level of trust and respect for farmers, and maintaining that trust is of utmost importance to ensure markets and avoid unnecessary regulation. Given a great deal of research on consumer perceptions and demand for farm animal welfare, there are many general conclusions and lessons that can be drawn with implications for farm practices.

THE THREE CHANGE AGENTS

When it comes to animal welfare, there are three avenues for change in farm production practices. One is the legal avenue that includes either legislation or ballot initiatives (in states that allow them).

A second avenue for change involves market reaction. Generally this occurs as retailers, such as grocers and restaurant chains, insist on practices at the farm level that those retailers can in turn market. In some cases, the retailers are responding to pressure from consumer groups, but often they are seeking to enhance corporate image.

A third avenue is for farmers to voluntarily adopt practices and assurances to alleviate the need for regulation and maintain social trust and public image. These programs might yield premiums for farmers . . . or at least avoid further market discounts for products.

With respect to farm animal welfare, the practices and perceptions vary to some degree depending on species and the way in which questions are asked. For example, framing a practice in a positive light will result in different responses than when it is framed in a negative light. However, some general patterns hold.

THREE PURCHASE DRIVERS

First, food safety is an issue that overwhelms all others. No one is interested in food products of any kind when food safety is in question. This makes claims or labels that imply there are food safety issues damaging. Food safety is often conflated with technology, farm size, and environmental issues. The dairy industry has a stellar record of supplying safe food, and maintaining this trust is paramount.

A second general result is that, when making a purchase of almost any product, most consumers primarily focus on price. Research reveals that about three-quarters of consumers consider price first and foremost. The reality is that budget constraints make concern over production practices a luxury for many consumers.

Third, about 15 percent of the public cares a great deal about animal welfare. Small, passionate groups drive discussions and often practice changes in many areas. Consumers that are most concerned with animal welfare when making food purchases tend to be older, wealthier, and female. This is not to say that others do not consider animal welfare aspects, but they tend to be of secondary importance to most consumers.

Another finding is that many voters do not consider the economic impacts of instituting production practice regulations. That is, voters often do not realize that the regulations in question will raise the cost of food and may lower profits for farmers. When presented with the resulting added food costs, about half of voters changed to vote against the regulation.

Research also reveals that bad press and incidents such as undercover videos have negative repercussions for the entire market, not just the operations in the video. Thus, the entire dairy industry has an interest in assuring practices align with public trust.

What are the solutions for the dairy industry to maintain social trust with respect to perceived animal welfare issues?

Assuming that farmers would prefer to avoid formal regulation, then some options include labels, education, and voluntary certification programs. Process labels describe how an animal was raised, crops were grown, or ingredients were transformed.

LABELS, LABELS, LABELS

Often these labels focus on what was not done or used, as is the case for “BST-free” and “GMO-free.” Advantages of process labels are that they provide information, may enhance trust, and can assist in segmenting the market. Disadvantages include potential information overload, confusion, and elevated food safety and risk perceptions.

Labels communicating a production technology often induce a negative reaction, resulting in reduced demand for safe products. For example, “contains” has a negative connotation while “free of” has a positive connotation. There are also labeling costs to consider.

Educational programs are often put forward as a solution because few consumers know or have context for production agriculture practices. There is some evidence that educational programming, such as a breakfast on the farm, enhances public perception and trust. However, keep in mind that people must want to be educated. There is also some evidence that educational programs can work against intended goals with lack of context and understanding of production agriculture.

One thing to remember is that consumer farm animal welfare concerns are about the production process rather than the product itself. That is, the concern is with the cow rather than the milk. Lack of recognition about this often leads to producers and consumers talking past each other in an unproductive manner. Education should not be conflated with activism or it runs the risk of inducing a negative reaction.

Finally, voluntary programs can assist in maintaining public trust. Program effectiveness depends largely on certification. While people often profess to lack trust in the government, research reveals that consumers often do not trust industries to police themselves and actually prefer USDA certification. Consumers also have more faith in programs where violations result in real consequences.

Social concerns related to production agriculture are a reality that is unlikely to diminish in future years. Awareness and incorporation of these concerns in production practices and marketing will help ensure social trust and avoid regulation in future years.

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