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November 29, 2007   Email to Friend 

Dr. F. Bailey Norwood
(405) 744-9820
November 29, 2007

TULSA, OK. -- As the farm animal care debate ensues, the American Farm Bureau Federation thought it was time to check in with consumers to measure their opinions on the issue. In cooperation with Oklahoma State University, more than 1,000 individuals across the U.S. were contacted by telephone and asked questions about farm animal welfare. Containing almost 50 questions, the survey produced a wealth of information to better help the industry understand its customer.

While there are many lessons to take away from the survey, three are particularly important for the livestock industry.

The first lesson is that the public cares far more about human welfare and farmers than they do farm animals. As a social issue, the financial well-being of U.S. farmers was found to be twice as important as the well-being of farm animals. Human poverty, the U.S. health care system, and food safety were found to be more than five times more important than farm animal well-being.

Through an innovative survey question, the suffering of one human was found to be equivalent to the suffering of 11,500 farm animals, and a majority of respondents felt that farmers should be compensated if forced to comply with higher farm animal welfare standards.

While this does not imply that farm animal welfare is not important, it does imply when forming public policy, the interests of farm animals take a backseat to the interest of humans. Proposed policies that raise food costs leave consumers with less money for funding programs benefiting humans. For example, with rising health care costs, every extra dollar spent on food is one less dollar for doctor visits and surgeries. Given that the welfare of humans is of far more concern than the welfare of animals, such tradeoffs should be seriously weighed by policy makers.

The second lesson is that consumers understand animal welfare is a result of their shopping decisions, in addition to farmer decisions. A majority of consumers believe their personal food choices have a large impact on the well-being of farm animals, and that if consumers desire higher animal welfare standards, food companies will provide it. Thus, when consumers choose to purchase traditional meat instead of more expensive meat raised under alternative production systems (e.g. organic meat or free-range meat), they understand that their purchase directly determines the level of animal care provided. If consumers are happy purchasing traditional meat, this signifies they approve of the animal care provided on traditional farms.

The third lesson is that consumers are much more accepting of the use of gestation crates for sows if they are given a reason for the crates other than reducing production costs. For example, only 18 percent of consumers agreed with the statement, "housing pregnant sows in crates is humane." However, when the statement is modified to, "housing pregnant sows in crates for their protection from other hogs is humane," 45 percent agree with the statement.

Given the difficulty of educating consumers, the use of such crates may always present a public relations problem. Plus, as this question shows, even when educated on gestation crates, they are still opposed by a majority of consumers. However, what the survey does suggest is that efforts by organizations to educate the public are not in vain.

Every business must understand its consumer. This survey provides unique insights into the mind of our consumer: every American that eats food. Moreover, by injecting these three lessons into every farm animal welfare debate, we help policy makers understand their consumer: the American voter.

F. Bailey Norwood is an assistant professor in the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics. He will be addressing the Alabama Farmers Federation's 86th Annual Meeting in a seminar, "What Consumers Say About Farm Animal Welfare Issues" on Sunday, Dec. 2, 10:30 a.m., in Room 14 of the Mobile Civic Center.

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