Research presented recently at the American Dairy Science Association annual meeting looked at consumer-purchasing decisions when it comes to animal welfare.

What would happen if all consumers were informed about the different types of egg and pork production systems available, and were allowed to purchase egg and pork products from these different systems? asked Bailey Norwood, associate professor at Oklahoma State University. The only difference between the food products would be the level of animal welfare. And, suppose that the price premium attached to products with higher standards of animal care exactly equals the estimated cost premiums. What would happen?

Norwood carried out this experiment with 300 consumers from three U.S. cities, where the subjects used their own, real money in an auction to purchase egg and pork products from different farm types. The egg and pork products differed only by the level of animal welfare provided, and the subjects attended presentations regarding the conditions in which the animals were raised. The products purchased would be ones that the consumer and their family would personally consume.

The results argue that most consumers believe hens in a cage-free system (with some outdoor access) to be 'happy', while hens in a cage system 'suffer'. The majority of consumers were also willing to pay the extra money needed to purchase cage-free eggs. Similar results were found for hogs. Hogs in a shelter-pasture system are thought to be 'happy' while their counterparts in a confinement-crate system 'suffer.' As with hens, consumers were willing to pay the additional price necessary to cover the cost of the better animal treatment.

Does this tell us how uninformed consumers would behave?, asks Norwood. No. If the products in said experiments were offered in a grocery store to regular, uninformed consumers, it may be the case that very few people purchase products with better animal care. Does this tell us how informed consumers would behave outside of an experimental setting and inside a grocery store? No. People behave differently as their setting differs. In the grocery store they behave more like consumers, whereas in experiments and voting booths they behave more like citizens.

Similar experiments were carried out where consumers could pay money to ensure that hens and hogs raised for food live a better life. One auction allowed people to bid money. The person winning the auction would then be given the opportunity to pay money ensuring 100 sows and their offspring lived on a shelter-pasture system instead of a confinement-crate system.

Using a model and a series of assumptions, we estimated that the consumers as a group were indeed willing to pay the cost to ensure eggs and pork that other people eat are raised in an environment more conducive to animal welfare. At first, this would suggest that – to the extent these consumers represent the U.S. population – U.S. citizens desire for all hens to be raised in a cage-free system and all hogs raised in a shelter-pasture system. There is a caveat though: the average willingness-to-pay for the group was largely determined by the extreme values of a few people.

If a referendum were held that required all hens in a cage system to be instead raised on a cage-free system (with some outdoor access), and all consumers paid an identical tax necessary to compensate farmers for the additional cost, less than 5 percent of citizens would approve the measure. Again, this assumes all citizens were informed about egg and hog production, says Norwood.

However, suppose that each citizen sent the government a check, whose amount equaled the maximum amount of money they would pay to transition all hens in a cage system to a cage-free system (with some outdoor access). Then, the government compared this sum of money with the amount of money needed to cover the cost of this transition. In this thought experiment, the amount of money collected would more than offset the costs.

The difference between this thought experiment and the voting experiment is that when people vote, all votes count equally. But when people can express their desire for improved animal welfare in the form of money, a few people are willing to depart with a large – very large – amount of money to cover the cost of improving the care of hens and hogs.

Other insights from Norwood’s research include:

  1. Consumers oppose placing animals in small, barren cages. Battery cages, gestation crates, and gestation pens are unethical according to most U.S. citizens. Educating consumers – by providing objective information – only makes them oppose these cages more.
  2. Compared to food safety and the environment, farm animal welfare is of little relative concern as a social issue.
  3. One-third of Americans believe that animals have a soul.
  4. Sixty-four percent of Americans believe that God wants humans to be good stewards of animals, and placing animals in small cages does not constitute good stewardship.
  5. One-third of Americans simply do not care about animal misery or merriment.
  6. When people learn about how we raise hens and pigs, they find we are treating animals in a more unethical manner than they originally thought.
  7. A slight majority of people desire to ban livestock practices they believe unethical, even if products from animals raised in an ethical manner are available to them.
  8. A majority of people will and have voted in referendums when the referendum reads as if it is for the benefit of animals.
  9. Most Americans do not want livestock to suffer, but care very little about making animals happy.

For more on Norwood’s research, read the paper he presented at the American Dairy Science Association annual meeting.