Oct. 10 2020 10:01 AM

The public’s perception of animal care influences their purchasing decisions and the way they vote on regulations.

The authors are a postdoctoral researcher at Iowa State University, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, and an assistant professor and extension specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, respectively.

farm tours may have varied effects on the public’s perception of farming, but they bring opportunities for us to highlight shared values around animal care.

The vast majority of our country’s population is several generations removed from farming. Most people are unfamiliar with modern production practices, yet dependent on agriculture and the food supply chain. Nonetheless, consumers today have a great deal of choice. When certain practices do not align with people’s expectations, they may choose to not consume dairy products or turn to alternatives.

Animal care is a key topic that affects how consumers view their food choices. That means animal welfare is critical to the dairy industry’s ability to maintain its “social license” and consumer base into the future.

Many consumers want to be confident their purchases don’t conflict with their values. Analysis of more than 40,000 survey responses from U.S. consumers showed that although most people prioritize price, safety, taste, and nutrition when buying food, they also put animal welfare ahead of other factors, such as convenience, environmental impact, and labor fairness.

Science to inform policy

How should the dairy industry address public concerns about animal welfare and maintain consumer confidence? This is where both the natural and social sciences can play a key role. For example, researchers focusing on the biology and behavior of animals provide invaluable insights into what cattle need and want to have a good life.

Social science is also needed, however, to understand the attitudes, expectations, and values of important dairy stakeholders, such as producers, veterinarians, and consumers. Sustainable policy recommendations will depend on solid research from both areas, conducted using rigorous, validated scientific techniques.

There is a large amount of data showing sizable majorities of Americans are either somewhat or very concerned about how food animals are treated. Research also reveals people can think or behave differently about these matters, depending on whether they are wearing their “consumer” hat or their “citizen” or “voter” hat. People are often more willing to take an action, like voting for a regulation, than putting their money where their mouth is.

Over the past two decades, at least seven states have passed regulations on farm animal care, mostly having to do with housing and allowing the animals to have greater freedom of movement. In states where citizens voted directly on these laws through ballot initiatives, 55% to 78% voted in favor of such regulations.

Not sure who to trust

Why would people want more regulation of farm animal care? Part of the issue is the public knows very little about the details of dairy farming, and very few indicate they have reliable sources of information on animal welfare.

Social science research has shown us that industry policies that restrict transparency are likely to be counterproductive. For example, “ag-gag” laws, intended to prevent animal rights groups from conducting undercover video investigations, have been passed in several states. However, our research has shown that when people became aware of such laws, their trust in farmers declined and support for greater farm animal care regulations rose.

Strikingly, this effect held regardless of whether they were omnivores or vegetarians, rural or urban, conservative or liberal. When people learned about the existence of ag-gag laws, many of them got the impression that farmers must have something to hide. Therefore, transparency appears critical for maintaining public trust.

Transparency is just the start

We often hear about the need to educate the public and “tell our story” to consumers. Easily attainable information improves transparency. But does improving consumers’ knowledge also improve their satisfaction with animal production methods? Research tells us that the answer is complicated.

On its own, greater knowledge about farming practices does not necessarily lead to more trust. In another study, we found that after an educational visit to a dairy farm, people certainly learned something — their knowledge about dairy production improved. However, gaining more information about dairy production had a variable effect on people’s perceptions of the industry. For some visitors, their attitudes toward dairy farming also improved, but others were ambivalent, and still others actually became more worried about the welfare of dairy cows.

Why did this happen?

Part of the reason is that “consumers” or “the public” are not one homogeneous group. For example, multiple studies have found that women are more concerned about animal welfare than men. This is noteworthy because women make more purchasing decisions and vote more than men do.

Critically, we also know that people have differing underlying values affecting their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors in relation to animal welfare. These values seem to be relatively unaffected by additional education about the “hows” and “whys” of animal farming.

In the farm-tour study, some people’s perceptions of dairy production improved because seeing the farm assured them that the cows were in good health and lived in clean barns with good nutrition. Other people, however, seemed to become dissatisfied because they expected to see animals in outdoor environments and able to perform a wider range of natural behaviors.

We view this example, and findings from other social science research, as eye-opening. It is an opportunity for the industry to enhance alignment with the public around areas of animal care such as ensuring that animals have freedom of movement.

Telling our story using competence, skills, and expertise — showing how much you know — is important. However, demonstrating shared values around animal welfare — showing how much you care — may matter even more. Engaging with the public to identify these shared values is likely to be more effective than simplistic attempts to “educate” the public.

Although necessary, shifting to a dialogue with the public is also unlikely to be sufficient in and of itself, unless it is accompanied by concrete actions. Proactively adopting best animal care practices rooted in science is critical to support the public perception of shared values and to promote improved consumer confidence.