Do Consumers Really Understand Animal Welfare?

Do Consumers Really Understand Animal Welfare?
A consumer panel at the recent Animal Ag Alliance Stakeholder Summit discussed shoppers' perceptions of animal welfare

The one thing that seems clear about animal welfare issues regarding food is that most folks are largely unclear on exactly what it all means.

At least that was the impression left by a consumer panel discussing food chain topics at the Animal Ag Alliance Stakeholder Summit earlier this month in Kansas City, Mo., where ranchers, retailers and foodservice operators met to discuss the issues and activism impacting their businesses.

Anne-Marie Roerink, of San Antonio-based 210 Analytics, author of the annual "Power of Meat" study from the Food Marketing Institute and the North American Meat Institute, moderated a panel of six Kansas City-area consumers ranging from single Boomers to Generation Xers and Millennial parents.

Their feedback during the hour-long session suggests that there’s still not universal agreement on what animal welfare means, a lack of understanding of food production processes, and a general mistrust of food labeling.

Asked what animal welfare is, the group’s answers ranged from “living conditions” and “space to run around,” to “quality of the feed” and “no steroids or hormones,” to “emotional and physical wellbeing.”

Asked how animal welfare ranks in guiding their meat-purchasing decisions, panelists were all over the scale, from a high of 10 (“As a consumer, voting with my dollars will bring change”), to a general “pretty low,” to those in the middle of the pack (“I care, but I’m on a limited budget”), with one no sure what to make of related packaging claims (“What does ‘organic’ really mean? Is it just to justify an increase in price?”).

At least one panelist considers “no antibiotics” a strong purchase driver, while others didn’t feel fully informed on the issue. And while most generally trusted producers (“I believe most don’t mistreat animals – that’s their living”), that trust seemed to taper off as the size of the company increased.

Economics seemed to play a role as well, particularly when it came to eggs. The most zealously welfare-conscious panelists buy only cage-free eggs, while those needing multiple dozens a week to feed large families sought the best price on conventional eggs.

In regard to milk, most of the panelists said that they’ve strayed from dairy; in one case, a lactose-intolerant family member led to the conversion of the whole household, for easier shopping. Another said that she drinks almond milk exclusively, declaring it to be healthier and more protein-rich than dairy milk, yet she acknowledged eating cheese.

All of the panelists expressed a desire for more information on where their food comes from and look to retailers as their “first line of defense.”

The panel's feedback indicates that food producers and retailers still have some work to do, to educate consumers on the real story behind where food comes from, how it’s produced and what’s good for you. There are a lot of voices out there, many with axes to grind, most of them on social media, speaking at a volume that’s often difficult for the industry to be heard above. (Another summit session focused on dealing with that.)

Transparency, collaboration and strategy based on truth and science-based information is key to helping consumers better understand what they’re eating, and that retailers and food producers truly care about what they’re being fed.

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