“You are not handling a lump of plastic,” she told egg producers. “You are handling animals with central nervous systems that feel pain and suffering.”

FEEDSTUFFS, January 1, 2001, pp. 8, 18

Consumer views on animal production pushing toward more ethical husbandry
By Rod Smith
Feedstuffs Staff Editor

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLA.—A number of factors influence consumers’ opinions and perceptions about animal welfare—from aesthetics and economics to cultural, philosophical and religious beliefs to scientific knowledge—and knowing the animal welfare concerns of consumers is necessary to determine husbandry practices that are acceptable to the public, according to Dr. Janice Swanson, an animal behavior specialist at Kansas State University.

The public view of agriculture is changing, she told egg producers attending the annual business meeting of the United Egg Producers (UEP) here. Citing analysis of D. Fraser at the University of British Columbia in 1998, she noted that the public view of agriculture is changing from one in which farmers and ranchers are perceived as caring for animals, land, and people to a more negative view of animal and environmental exploitation and unhealthy, unsafe products—a change from ethical value drivers to profit motivation.

The greater the industrialization and intensity of agriculture becomes, the more negative the public view becomes, she said. “We can’t just knee-jerk to this,” she said. “We have to understand why [public views change] and respond to that.”

In her remarks and a paper written with Dr. Joy Mench, a colleague at the University of California in Davis, she compared this changed public view of agriculture to how the public view of the munitions industry changed from a common good in World Wars I and II to “merchants of death” in the Vietnam War.

Swanson said several surveys have been conducted to gauge consumer/public views about agriculture and agriculture animal production, including the Animal Industry Foundation’s surveys in 1993 and 1998 that found a decided majority of consumers believe farmers and ranchers are essential to American life (74% in 1993 and 80% in 1998), there is nothing wrong with growing animals for food (66 and 65%) and producers who do grow animals for food treat those animals humanely (77 and 80%).

She told the UEP meeting that the foundation’s surveys and a national Zogby America survey taken last year found consumers are prepared to pay higher prices for animal-derived food from animals raised humanely, including eggs from hens.

At the same time, she advised how attitudes are changing, reporting that the number of people in the Midwest who consider themselves vegetarians has increased from 1% in 1978 to 7% in 1999.

She attributed this to demand for socially friendly environments (smoke-free) and products (animal welfare-friendly).

The extent to which this is occurring is well demonstrated in Europe, where not only are egg producers being mandated to move to “enriched cages” (Feedstuffs, Sept. 25, 2000).

However, this change also is occurring in the U.S., as demonstrated in the Zogby work, she said, reporting that 74.4% of those surveyed said starvation-induced molts are unacceptable. Furthermore, she said, this is neither a location phenomenon—as 78.9% of easterners, 75.1% of midwesterners and 78.5% of westerners found the practice unacceptable—nor a political phenomenon—as 78.3% of Democrat, 73.3% of Republican and 75.7% of independent voters found this practice [of starvation-induced molts] unacceptable.

Indeed, legislation was proposed to ban molting in California and to increase cage space to 86 sq. in. per hen in Washington, she said, although the bills were defeated in both states. (The average cage space in the U.S. is 53-57 sq. in. per bird.)

An important reason for this change in public attitude may be that the semantics surrounding agriculture practices influence public views, especially as people learn the meanings of the semantics, Swanson and Mench said in their paper.

“Producers could be misled into believing that a practice is perceived as acceptable, only to come under siege when the public is exposed to the realities of the practice. Neutralized terminology (e.g., beak trimming or tail trimming instead of debeaking or tail docking) is appropriate when accompanied by honest descriptions and explanations of the actual practice and reasons” for it, they said.

For instance, Swanson and Mench reported 91% of people surveyed by Caravan Opinion Research Corp. in 1995, once aware of practices, said they disapproved of veal calf housing systems and 90% said they disapproved of hen housing systems that do not provide room for hens to stretch their wings.

Another important reason for this change in public perception may be that Americans do believe animals have rights that need to be protected, Swanson and Mench said. Although most people polled in recent surveys believe it’s acceptable to grow animals for food resources, a majority is starting to object to producing animals for other purposes such as fur and certain kinds of research and testing, they said.

Moreover, although people said animals do not have the same rights as humans, respondents said animals do deserve equal consideration in matters related to pain and suffering, Swanson and Mench said. “It is important for [producers] to identify what consumers mean when they indicate that animals have rights,” they said.

Swanson advised the UEP [United Egg Producers] meeting that the animal rights/welfare organizations have made agriculture their number-one priority and cautioned that they have the clout to move their agenda, pointing to how the National Rifle Assn., one of the more powerful influencers in Washington, D.C., has 3.8 million members, while the Humane Society of the U.S. has 7 million members.

Long-term solutions to issues surrounding humane, productive animal husbandry practices require that agriculture, farmers and ranchers not only understand public expectations and perceptions regarding animal treatment but develop scientifically sound indices of animal well-being, Swanson said.

However, consumers sometimes are apathetic and science sometimes doesn’t have all of the answers, she said, but producers still must act appropriately and morally. Assuming a lack of consumer interest or scientific measurement means no responsibility would be “dangerous,” she said.

There is a difference between what can be done—even what can be done safely—and what’s moral or perceived as moral, Swanson said. In the final analysis, without consumer or scientific direction, producers should act morally, she said.

“You are not handling a lump of plastic,” she told the egg producers. “You are handling animals with central nervous systems that feel pain and suffering,” and producers should come down on the side of their animals. [END]

United Poultry Concerns, Inc.
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150
FAX: 757-678-5070

(Feedstuffs Aricle - Consumer views on animal production pushing toward more ethical husbandry - January 1, 2001)