CONSUMERS today are interested in not only what they buy but how it was made and who/what was affected in bringing it to market, according to Purdue University researchers N.J.O. Widmar, C. Croney and M.G.S. McKendree.
At the same time, consumer tastes, preferences and values are highly variable and heterogeneous, so determining which agricultural system is ethically superior to another is complicated, especially without consensus on what makes a production method or system "good," the researchers said in unveiling their findings last month.
Even consumers' interpretations of simple labels such as "all natural" vary widely, the researchers noted. In a survey they conducted, respondents reported that they associate such labels with improved animal welfare practices, no antibiotics, no hormones, no added preservatives, improved taste and improved food safety.
As such labels proliferate, the researchers said it is important for producers to understand what they are perceived to mean and how and to what extent purchasing the labeled product aligns with a consumer's values. For example, does a label suggest improved welfare or a food safety enhancement?
Along with perceptions, consumers' knowledge base, information sources and past experiences may also influence their demand for alternative agricultural practices, the researchers said.
As for where consumers seek information on animal welfare, the Purdue work confirmed the work of others that found that consumers generally rely on The Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and, to a lesser extent, federal government agencies and "other" sources for that information.
More recently, when asked this question with the option to select not having any source for animal welfare information, 55% of respondents selected no source, the researchers said.
As debates continue about what animal agriculture should look like, it is important to recognize that deficits of trusted sources of objective information, combined with underlying value notions, may explain why consumers' purchasing behaviors may or may not reflect their stated preferences.
Understanding the value consumers place on various systems and their attributes and the basis for forming opinions will enable constructive discussions on how agricultural industries can meet consumer demands and do so profitably, the researchers said.
Livestock producers face a changing marketplace as consumers are increasingly focused on the practices used to produce their food and the treatment of livestock in general.
As part of their online survey of 798 U.S. consumers conducted in June 2012, the Purdue researchers also set out to determine consumer purchasing patterns of meat and dairy products as well as perceptions of hog rearing and livestock product attributes.
In doing so, they found that 14% of respondents had reduced their overall pork consumption in the past three years due to animal welfare/handling concerns.
Concern over pig rearing practices was highest for intensive housing operations; the fewest respondents were concerned about castration and ear notching, the researchers said.
Interestingly, it was also found that although they often discussed concern for livestock animals, consumers' actual shopping decisions focused on individual products.
In the case of lunch meat purchases and preferences for lunch meat attributes, the researchers found inconsistencies between which attributes consumers associated with high quality and which attributes they actually considered during a purchase.
More than 73% of respondents agreed that the statements "produced on farms with animal welfare and handling standards in place" and "produced by farmers certified in animal welfare techniques" were associated with higher-quality lunch meats. Still, only 47% and 45% of respondents, respectively, reported considering these attributes when purchasing lunch meat.
When asked about concerns for animal welfare and food safety, more respondents expressed concern for food safety for the majority of products studied. Staple products like milk, eggs and ground beef generated concern for the largest number of respondents. The number of respondents indicating concern varied across products, even when they were produced by the same animal species (i.e., steak versus roast beef lunch meat), the researchers said.
Livestock, pet, neither?
Understanding consumers' views of different livestock species, their perceived obligations to animals and sources of relevant information is another important step in facilitating constructive discussions of agricultural animal care, welfare and ethics that incorporate a layperson's beliefs and values, the Purdue researchers noted.
For that reason, another part of their online survey looked to determine consumers' classification of animal species, the relationship between classification and opposition to eating those species and the relationship between pet ownership/crating and their perceived obligations to animals.
The survey collected information on household demographics, pet ownership and perceptions of pets and perceptions of traditional and non-traditional livestock animals.
One interesting species classification was the horse, with 55% selecting it as a pet, 27% as livestock and 18% as neither.
Respondents' opposition to eating animals varied by animal species: 81 respondents opposed eating a beef cow, while 151 opposed eating a dairy cow. Respondents opposed to eating certain animal species were less opposed to other people eating those species, the researchers said.
Linking classification with opposition to eating animals, those classifying a beef cow as non-livestock more often reported opposition to eating animals than those classifying a beef cow as livestock.
Sixty-six percent of respondents reported having at least one household pet. At the 95% confidence level, respondents with cats and/or dogs more frequently reported concerns about livestock animal welfare than those without cats and dogs.
Of those with cats and/or dogs, 20% reported using cages/crates. However, no statistical differences were found between those who used crates/cages and those who did not regarding their level of concern for pig housing and management practices such as gestation crates, farrowing crates, group housing and indoor confinement.
Dog and/or cat owners more frequently reported having a source for animal welfare information — 51% of dog and cat owners versus 32% without a cat or dog, the researchers reported.
This work suggests that consumers' values and beliefs likely influence their perceptions of important product attributes (such as food safety and animal welfare/handling) and, potentially, their purchasing behavior.
However, the researchers noted that great variation exists in concerns among consumers as a function of the product type and attributes.