May 15, 2014

13 Min Read
Understanding Consumers

Much has been written about consumer perceptions of animal welfare and their relationships to purchasing behavior. However, what is less well-discussed is why today’s consumers attend so readily to animal welfare issues, including those pertaining to species that they may have no direct connection with, such as pigs.

A number of events have occurred which contribute to heightened consumer awareness and concern about livestock well-being. First, in the last two decades, more has been written on the subject of animal welfare and rights, and more legislation and bills have been introduced, than historically has ever occurred. In addition, societal changes have fundamentally changed people’s views on what constitutes acceptable treatment of animals. Urbanization in particular has become one of the most important factors impacting people’s perceptions of animal welfare. Because most people are almost entirely disconnected from animal agriculture, the average person’s knowledge of modern farming practices tends to be minimal. This has resulted in both consumer interest in how food is produced and unease about the treatment of animals on today’s large-scale industrialized farms, as represented by social and other media. 

It is becoming apparent that people’s apprehensions about the welfare of livestock are tied to the changing relationships most have with animals today, and that these may be specifically associated with the human-animal bond. Today, most people’s primary relationships with animals tend to be based on their interactions with companion animals, those they see at zoos and aquariums, and others experienced via various media. Consequently, people’s ideas about how farm animals such as pigs should be treated may be based on their experiences with companion animals, along with the idea that animals are sentient beings with a vested interest in how they are treated. Contributing to such perceptions is a phenomenon that experts refer to as the “Disney factor” — the anthropomorphic portrayals of animals that frequently occur in the media. Thus, the strong bonds that many people have with the animals with whom they are routinely engaged provide significant incentive to care about food animals, and to expect that they will be treated comparatively well. In fact, a recent study conducted at Purdue University by Melissa McKendree, Nicole Olynk Widmar and Candace Croney indicated that people’s relationships with companion animals are indeed tied to the development of concerns about livestock, with pet owners exhibiting greater concern and ability to identify sources of information on animal welfare than those without pets. 

Given this frame of reference, a perceived lack of analogous relationships with agricultural animals is likely to be interpreted poorly by many members of the public with strong connections to animals. From an industry insider’s perspective, it might seem naïve and unrealistic to expect pork producers to have individual relationships with all of their animals. Yet, evidence suggests that rather than expecting farmers to interact with farm animals as though they were pets, people desire reassurance that those rearing pigs at least care about the quality of life the animals are experiencing, and that they treat them while they are alive as beings with needs that matter, and value beyond their potential profit margins. When industry discussions about and interactions with animals appear not to reflect anything resembling mutually beneficial, caring relationships, it may translate not just as lack of compassion for animals, but as total insensitivity to them. Understandably, then, stories about routine on-farm abuse of farm animals are much more likely to be believed, particularly by those members of the public who do not live in rural communities or have any direct connections to farmers.

Indeed, one of the major criticisms levied against large-scale, intensive farm animal production is that traditional “husbandry” and corresponding emotional connections to animals are now entirely absent on large farms and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and fundamentally contribute to animal welfare problems. These themes are so often repeated in social and mass media that for many people, they have become generally accepted. Not surprisingly, then, undercover video exposés of conditions on U.S. swine farms tend to be believed and met with high levels of public outrage. Claims about inhumane treatment and conditions provide even more fodder for concern, especially when these are widely and repeatedly broadcast. Although recent months have seen evidence of what some refer to as “video fatigue,” characterized by what looks like a declining level of public response to such videos, pork producers cannot afford to become complacent, as animal welfare concerns appear to be impacting consumer beliefs and corresponding purchasing behavior. The Purdue study by McKendree et al. highlights this, with the data showing that most consumers ranked sow housing as the most significant area of concern in U.S. pork production. This finding particularly makes sense in light of the plethora of negative stories focusing on sow housing that circulated prior to the data collection period. Additionally, 7% of the consumers surveyed reported that as a consequence of their concerns about typical pork production practices, such as the use of gestation and farrowing stalls, they had reduced their pork consumption by as much as 56%. This represents a significant potential loss for the industry and should be a cause for concern.

Most pork producers are all too familiar with the now-commonplace occurrence of undercover videos released by animal protection groups. These typically present gruesome images within the targeted facilities and paint an overall grim picture of large-scale, intensively produced and confined pigs. While many industry insiders often respond with skepticism and anger about the accuracy of what is presented, it is important to understand the public impacts of such videos, and industry responses to them. 

Continuous confinement of sows is often a major focus of these videos, with emphasis on the severe restriction of movement caused by the use of gestation stalls. This in itself can be disturbing to members of the public who have not recently visited a farm using such systems, and thus may be seeing such images for the first time. It should also be kept in mind that many of these same people have likely read books such as "Charlotte’s Web," or watched movies or documentaries showing pigs to be highly social, curious, intelligent and emotional animals. Some viewers may keep pigs as pets or know others that do. Consequently, strong emotional reactions are likely to be evoked relative to empathy for the animals, and concern about the safety and quality of the products derived from them. In turn, the concerns may manifest themselves in purchasing and other boycotts of the targeted industry or facility.

In addition to troubling images of animals that are essentially immobilized, concerns may be heightened by observing many of them engaged in stereotypical oral behaviors, such as repetitive bar biting and tongue rolling. Although these behaviors often occur coincide with feeding times and are likely associated with anticipation of feeding, science also indicates that such stereotypies may be coping mechanisms that develop in response to frustrated feeding and foraging behaviors. Stereotypical behaviors are thought to occur in environments that do not adequately meet at least some aspects of animals’ needs, so their continuous performance can be troubling. Although the highly inflammatory claims that such behaviors indicate animals being “driven insane” by their housing may not be scientifically supportable, there is some basis for concern when stereotypies are rampant and continuous. Compounding the problems are those images showing that certain animals cannot even lie comfortably in their stalls, and may not be able to avoid lying with their heads in their feeders or their limbs extending into adjacent stalls due to their size. Other depictions of sows with prolapses (often incorrectly attributed to gestation stall housing), inevitably cause further apprehension to viewing audiences who are not experts in pig ethology or production. Unsurprisingly, other specious claims linking the use of gestation stalls to environmental damage and more recently, to the spread of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV) become much easier to believe in light of the other issues depicted. This is especially true given that public concerns about modern animal production extend beyond animal welfare to include food safety, human health and environmental implications.

Likewise, standard production practices such as castration, tail docking and blunt force trauma, which are often shown in undercover videos, are consistently upsetting to people. While those involved in pork production may understand why such practices are used, laypersons may not. Moreover, the fact that they are unpleasant to watch and are consistently described as cruel and inhumane means that even when workers are shown performing the procedures in accordance with industry standard (which is frequently the case), consumers are unlikely to feel at ease. 

Additionally, because much of the public is very sensitive to the issue of animal pain, it is improbable that people can be convinced that such procedures can be performed humanely when no pain relief is provided. In fact, a 2004 survey of Ohioans found that 75% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “farm animals should be protected from feeling physical pain.” Studies have shown that the animals indeed experience acute (albeit short-term) pain when they are castrated and their tails docked, providing additional fodder for concerns on this topic. Images of pigs with hernias following processing therefore serve only to further heighten people’s fears that farm animals in the U.S. are not being treated carefully or well.

It is worth noting that although many of the recent undercover videos convey messages that are inaccurate or debatable, several have also captured clear evidence of inappropriate, rough handling of pigs, along with poor worker attitudes and behaviors that do not reflect best management practices. Worse, that these problems appear to be recurrent raises questions about the efficacy of industry training programs and the ability to self-regulate, points often raised by animal activists. That such lapses can escape detection by managers or farm owners is difficult for people to accept and undermines already tenuous consumer trust in modern agriculture. Keep in mind that for the average person, attention to food animal production is likely only drawn as a result of one scandal or another. Therefore, the salience and perceived frequency of such events may be disproportionately heightened.

Collectively, all of this contributes to generally poor perceptions of large-scale swine production and lack of trust in industry assertions that poor practices and inappropriate interactions with animals are aberrations, and it potentially results in economic losses for producers. Adding fuel to the fire is that fact that animal welfare standards for livestock in Canada and many European Union nations are much more stringent in many areas than those established in the U.S., and that even developing nations are beginning to attend to the issue. Thus, there is growing expectation and pressure for the U.S. to offer comparatively high levels of protection for animals used for food.

Since the early 1990s, activists have placed pressure on various sectors of the food industry to improve animal care practices by establishing and implementing animal welfare guidelines and standards. This strategy of using marketplace pressure to drive changes in animal production practices and systems, rather than relying solely on legislation, was described in 2001 by Schweikhardt and Browne as “politics by other means.” However, unimpressed with the pace and extent of animal care reform offered by the various assurance schemes, The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) led an unprecedented flurry of legislative activity in the early 2000s. Voters overwhelmingly supported animal welfare measures in 2006, and again in 2008 with the passage of California’s Proposition 2, which aimed to regulate housing of gestating sows, egg-laying hens and veal calves. Ohio’s 2009 Issue 2, which proposed the development of a Livestock Care Standards Board, also was supported. 

In recent years, however, the need for multinational corporations to retain their customer base and access to global markets has mandated attention to renewed citizen pushback and pressure from special interest groups on animal welfare. Corporations are subjected to increasing pressure, given that members of animal protection groups are now purchasing or otherwise obtaining sufficient shares in food production and distribution companies to introduce shareholder resolutions pertaining to animal care and welfare. This new strategy, well outlined on PETA’s (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) website, in combination with direct customer feedback on corporate websites, has contributed to a staggering number of company announcements to reduce or phase out purchasing of pork from producers using gestation stalls for sow housing — a move that has infuriated many producers and led to major rifts within the swine industry.

Various studies indicate that as consumers become more affluent, they tend to demand more animal protein sources. As food accessibility presents less of a challenge, people can afford to shift their focus to how food is produced and scrutinize the safety, quality and ethical aspects of products that matter to them. However, the global nature of food production and delivery that exists today contributes to consumers feeling disconnected from their food and how it is produced, which in turn can cause apprehension about its safety and quality. Increasingly, these characteristics are conflated with animal welfare. Yet, such “credence attributes” are invisible to the consumer both before and after the purchase. Consumers must therefore make purchases based on their personal beliefs, experiences, values and level of trust in the limited information they may be provided about their food. 

Data from the Center for Food Integrity’s 2013 survey indicate that concern about the well-being of farm animals is increasing for many consumers, and that a significant percentage are not convinced that animals raised for meat in the U.S. are treated humanely. While many within the pork industry are likely to remain skeptical about people’s willingness to pay for animal welfare attributes in various pork products, a small but significant population appear prepared to do so, if for no other reason than to use their purchasing dollars to drive changes in the standards of care provided to farm animals. The growth in organic markets serves as a testament to the effect of people’s willingness to embrace food products they deem to be of superior quality, safety and social responsibility. Likewise, consumer shifts (even temporarily) in purchasing pork and other animal products as a consequence of concerns about animal welfare have been well-documented.

Thus, as frustrating as the ongoing video exposés on farms can be, outright dismissal of the concerns consumers may subsequently raise serves only to reinforce the notion that the industry disregards both the experiences animals are having and their own customers’ demands. All parties involved in pork production must therefore effectively address perceived and real animal welfare problems if they are to retain their customer base. 

On farms, ensuring that both producers and animals are protected requires dedication to creating a culture of caring and responsibility toward animals, co-workers, the facility and the industry itself. Cautious selection of employees despite limited applicant pools is critical. Investment in employee well-being, to proper training on best practices, and ongoing supervision and rapid feedback relative to performance of caretaking duties are all essential. Further, because shoppers as well as activist groups are continuing to exert pressure on groceries, restaurants and other market sectors to provide assurances about animal care and welfare, it is important to provide easily accessible, accurate information on animal rearing practices and the measures that are in place to ensure animal safety and well-being.     

Candace Croney is a member of the Center for Food Integrity’s animal care review panel and serves as the director of the Purdue University Center for Animal Welfare Science.


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