It looks like the New Year is going to bring even more focus on animal welfare.
In a year-end interview, University of Guelph researcher Michael von Massow said he was “stunned” when his research this fall revealed there’s been a 300 per cent increase in just two years in the group of Canadians he describes as actively concerned about animal welfare.
“Two years ago, animal welfare registered with only a small number of people, and most people said they didn’t consider it an issue,” said von Massow, an associate professor in the College of Business and Economics. “Now, more people care…and they care more than they used to.”
Von Massow’s research involves about 2,000 people, and is carried out with support from the Tim Horton’s Sustainable Food Management Fund at the university. He says food companies’ independent research has been showing similar trends about public concerns. That’s resulted in welfare-based consumer campaigns dealing with hot topics such as hormones and steroids, and animal housing.
Some of these campaigns frustrate farmers – especially those by companies boasting their meat comes from livestock that is free or this and that. A classic example is the hormone-free chicken claim. In Canada, no chicken is raised with hormones. But ad campaigns by one company making that claim infer other companies’ chicken products are compromised with hormones. They’re not.
Consumers, however, don’t know that. So von Massow thinks the agriculture sector should get more active in telling its story, before someone else does or myths gain more traction.
“Consumers inherently trust farmers, but they have no idea what farmers do on the farm,” he says. “So, if consumers see a picture or a video of a certain farming practice that they don’t like, or something like animal abuse, that becomes their reality.”
People are telling researchers such as von Massow and the rest of the farming industry that they want more information about agriculture and production practices, but they don’t know where to get it. That means a huge opportunity exists for someone or some group to step forward and fill that void.
The good news is that great stories already exist, showing how farmers have long taken an interest in food safety and animal welfare. Von Massow’s colleagues at the University of Guelph have been leaders in research in both areas, going back more than 30 years. For example, research at the Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare has supported or driven changes to agricultural practices in Canada that have made livestock better cared for, and food safer and more nutritious
Consumers need to hear how these developments end up as farm practices, and how they influence the food that appears on their plates. Von Massow says that’s a job for the entire food production sector, including farmers, who continue to rate high with consumers when it comes to credibility.
“Consumers are saying they don’t need to know every detail about production on the farm, but they want to know enough to feel assured that what’s going on is OK,” he says.
Instances have arisen over the years where a closer look at on-farm practices have left consumers cold, such as raising animals in cages that appear to be too confining. Research might have shown livestock raised in these cages were healthy, but the visuals, plus the fact some of our trading partners were making changes, didn’t sit well with consumers. Changes were made, and are being made still.
Often, such practices were carried out because they were cost-efficient, and the price of food was something else consumers said they were concerned about.
Maybe that’s because price, unlike animal welfare, is in front of them every time they shop for food. When they blamed farmers for rising food prices, farmers were quick to point out examples of how they received only pennies out of the consumer dollar. The lion’s share goes to others in the food value chain, including processors and retailers.
Von Massow says the price-sensitive group of consumers is declining, although the headlines that appeared following the recent prediction that food prices will rise in 2016 suggest strong concerns remain about price.
In any event, research shows farmers have a growing public concern to deal with. And with openness being the best policy, the way forward is clear, if not easy: make consumers comfortable with farming practices. Be proactive explaining them, so your practices, not someone else’s interpretation, become consumers’ reality.