Welfare labeling: Do consumers want it?

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We often hear that consumers want more information about their food, such as the livestock-production practices behind a package of meat or dairy products in the grocery case. But an important question is how much information they really want, and if they are willing to pay for it. Process verification adds costs, as can the production practices consumers think they want.

With regards to animal-welfare attributes, economists Glynn Tonser from Kansas state University and Christopher Wolf from Michigan State University recently completed a large study to assess consumer perceptions of animal welfare and their desire for labeling of animal-welfare information on food products.

The researchers surveyed 2,000 consumers in the fall of 2008, providing a sample consistent with U.S. demographics. In their report, Tonser and Wolf note that the U.S. livestock industry is facing unprecedented pressure over concerns regarding how modern livestock production practices, particularly the use of gestation stalls by swine producers and of laying hen cages by egg producers.

The researchers note that mandatory animal-welfare labeling potentially could:

  • Reduce consumer uncertainty regarding the production practices used in rearing farm animals.
  • Reduce search costs of consumers valuing different provisions of farm animal care.
  • Convey more complete information to livestock producers regarding consumer demand for alternative provisions of farm animal care.

In the survey, when initially asked, 61.7 percent of respondents indicated they would be in favor of mandatory labeling of pork produced on farms using gestation crates/stalls, while 62.0 percent gave similar responses regarding eggs produced using laying hen cages.

Based on responses to subsequent survey questions, the researchers estimate the typical U.S. resident is willing to pay about 20 percent higher prices for pork and egg products in exchange for mandatory labeling information conveying the use, or non-use, of gestation crates or laying hen cages. They note that the estimate is prone to what economists call “hypothetical bias,” meaning consumers might overstate what they would pay on a survey compared to what they actually would pay in the store. With that in mind, they consider the 20 percent figure the upper boundary of what consumers would pay for the labeling.

The researchers note that much more needs to be learned and numerous questions remain unanswered regarding consumer perceptions of animal welfare and appropriate regulatory standards. In their report, they note these points:

  • A thorough benefit-cost assessment is needed.
  • Alternative voluntary labeling schemes also warrant consideration.
  • Mandatory labeling may not enhance consumer choice.
  • Food label information overload must be considered.
  • Disconnects between frequent meat consumers and advocates for production practice bans must be delineated.
  • Development of a composite animal welfare index would be a valuable contribution.

For links to the full report and videos outlining the results, visit K-State’s AgManager Web site.

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Kevin Edberg    
St. Paul MN  |  August, 01, 2011 at 11:20 AM

"Do consumers want it?" The language and assumption in back of this question suggests that there is a uniform group of people who act and believe consistently alike. Truth be told, there is no such thing. Unlike #2 yellow corn, there is no such thing as "the consumer". There are clusters of consumers who put different weights on different attributes of products, and the size of those clusters shifts over time. But the most useful way to think about them is as existing as clusters, not as a block unit, or as a commodity. Do they want it? Some do, some don't, some might if you did it this way and don't if you want it another way, etc. Especially as niches emerge and grow larger in the beef industry, it would be useful if Drovers sharpened its language and analysis, did a better job of helping its readers see the natures of the clusters, and stopped using language as a way of commoditizing the buyers of the industry's products.

manhattan, ks.  |  August, 01, 2011 at 05:27 PM

Kevin- "the consumer" exists in the wallet of every shopper, shoppers may be different and value different things but in the end they are all governed by a limited supply of money at their disposal, so essentially they are all in the end governed by the same principal regardless of belief. Drovers has put out countless other articles explaining various niches and provided a link to the full report for your further review. It pays to do your own thinking/research sometimes so you shouldn't expect someone else like Drovers to do all the work for you all the time. In agriculture we have alot bigger problems then the trivial meaning of one single article title, Give the man a break!

Kingston, NY  |  August, 01, 2011 at 02:41 PM

Shocking that consumers say that they would pay around 20% more to know how their food was treated when it was alive - that is a good bit more money. Looks like as more people are finding out the terrible ways that farm animals are treated they are wanting to demand more ethical treatment, and are even willing to pay for it - so nice to hear.

manhattan, ks  |  August, 01, 2011 at 05:31 PM

Leah- words are cheap its actions that count. "They note that the estimate is prone to what economists call “hypothetical bias,” meaning consumers might overstate what they would pay on a survey compared to what they actually would pay in the store", maybe you should re-read that statement, it rings true compared to the last sentence you posted. Don't demonize a whole industry because of a few bad apples.

OK  |  August, 01, 2011 at 11:10 PM

It's said that perception is reality, and I suppose it is. With over 98% of the citizenry totally disconnected from the land and agriculture, they're pretty easily led to believe plenty that isn't true. Unfortunately some of it is true in isolated cases and should be stopped, but the vast majority isn't true. The problem is ignorance, gross ignorance of the dynamics of life and death. Everything dies one way or another. Life is in a seed, and it dies when it sprouts a new plant. It also dies when the little birdie eats the seed. The hen who laid your breakfast eggs was involved, but the pig who supplied your bacon was committed to your sustanance. Oh by the way the chicks that might have come from those two eggs forfeited their lives so you could eat. The same is true of all those fruits, veggies, nuts and roots you consume. So back to ignorance - - If ignorance is bliss - - there are a lot of people who are literally in Heaven here in Earth. Recommended reading is The Holy Bible - - Oh but I forgot - we can't mention God and His wisdom - - but we could sure use a good dose of it right now.

manhattan, ks.  |  August, 02, 2011 at 12:52 PM

Leah- I smell a load of bull. You might want to read into the Food Safety and Inspection Service's enforcement of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (link below its just a starting point for you). www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets/key_facts...slaughter/index.asp Once again you are still generalizing one method of production over the whole industry. Not everyone uses gestation crates, not all veal calves are kept from walking etc. "Broilers deserve more than 6 weeks of life', when you say that it sounds like youre starting to promote a meat-less diet under the radar, how long exactly should they deserve to life? You know why those documented cases exist? BECAUSE they got in trouble for it. Youre right about one thing animals deserve more, more recipes that is.

Caroline Cross    
Caldwell, ID  |  August, 02, 2011 at 07:54 PM

No surprise that folks being polled were in favor of humane treatment of animals, consumer choice, and industry transparency. Rather than defend 'modern' (read: immoral) practices, industry should compete to be global leaders in innovations that balance humane treatment with sustainable practices. If consumers were allowed to see the conditions of their current "cheap" meat, vs. husbandry of chickens, pigs, and veal that included space to move, access to outdoors, and reasonable stocking densities, I'm sure they'd be willing to pay far more than a 20% premium. The real question is, if they had to witness what the 'conventionally-raised' animals endure, how many people would take the meat, even if it were free? I agree with Jim that the Bible is an invariably wise touchstone on such issues. I'm particularly reminded of (John 10) Jesus calling Himself 'the good shepherd' and characterizing such a person as someone who would 'give his life for the sheep'. That's a pretty high bar, but we're starting from such a very low status quo that we've got nowhere to go but up.

Kingston, NY  |  August, 03, 2011 at 08:51 AM

Caroline, very well said. We do have no where to go but up. How the meat industry is currently doing things is the lowest of the low. Yes, (jmcv) there may be a few good farmers out there who treat their animals humanely but most of the meat that people are consuming is coming from large scale factory farms where the treatment of the animals is disgusting. And Carolina, yes I agree that if people really saw what the animals went through they wouldn't even take the meat for free. (Jmcv) Yes, I am promoting a meat-free diet - it is the only humane thing to do. Why do we think that animals should suffer and die so that we can taste them?! Each animal is an individual with a unique personality and feelings; they don't deserve what our meat industry does to them and the only way to stop it is to stop the demand...to stop eating meat.

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