Solving the Problem of Public Perception of Animal Welfare
Some consumers believe that farmers are only interested in making money and don't really care about their animals.
Photo © Mschalke | Dreamstime.com.
What is animal welfare? This is a question that will probably never have an answer that suits everyone, but one that's becoming more critical as consumers grow increasingly interested in and concerned about how food is produced.
Those who practice good animal welfare are already employing practices that enhance livestock well-being. The result is healthy, thriving livestock that will eventually make a profit for the farmer. However, that's one of the problems. Some consumers believe that farmers are only interested in making money and don't really care about their animals.
Another issue is that Joe and Jane Consumer don't really have an accurate perception of modern farming, or what good animal welfare is, and assume that farmers should treat and care for their animals in the same way the nonfarm public cares for their pets. Although animal welfare is the top priority for the overwhelming majority of farmers, public perception and the tendency for people to equate livestock with pets will always be a challenge.
Farmers such as Tom Murray in New York, who started making cheese on the farm, are finding out just how much the public doesn't know about animal agriculture, and how critical it is that farmers be willing to answer questions.
Although Murray doesn't offer tours of the animal facilities, the farmstead is arranged such that arriving visitors can look directly into the barns and see the cows. Murray has posted signs indicating that the barns are not open to the public, but visitors are encouraged to ask as many questions as they want.
Consumers who view cattle from a distance can't easily distinguish beef from dairy cattle, and often believe that the two types are the same. Producers can explain the differences and talk about how keeping cattle comfortable throughout the seasons can be challenging no matter what system is being used.
Photos by Sally Colby unless otherwise noted.
"It's so important that we inform the public about what's good and what's bad," said Murray. He recounted a story of a couple from the city who visited the farm to purchase cheese. "They got out of their car, looked into the barn and saw the cows chained in tie stalls. The woman came into the store and asked me if the cows ever go outside." His answer: "Yes, they go out every night." The woman then asked, "But why are they chained?" His reply: "Because it's a tie-stall barn and that's how we fasten them in. Otherwise they'd walk all over the barn and it would be a mess. Every cow has fresh straw under her, and the cows and their tails are extremely clean. If you'll notice, there's a ventilation system that brings in fresh air every eight seconds."
Pigs that are raised in outdoor systems don't necessarily have better welfare conditions. Fly control, adequate feed and shelter/shade must be provided for pigs living outside.
Despite the patient explanation, the woman insisted that the cows should be outside on grass. Murray told her again that the cows would be outside on grass at night, explaining that in hot weather it was better for the cows to be inside during the day. The woman told Murray that she passes by a lot of other farms and sees the cows outside. He told her that what she saw were probably beef cows, and that beef cattle can handle heat better than dairy cows. The woman insisted that the cows she had seen outside were the same as the Holsteins she was looking at in Murray's tie-stall barn. He replied: "If they are, it probably isn't a good situation for those dairy cows."
There was a brief silence, but the woman wasn't deterred. Her next challenge: "How would I tell if they're dairy cows?" Murray explained the basic differences between dairy and beef cattle, and suggested that the woman visit that farm to find out what breed of cattle she had seen. The woman's final comment: "You mean they aren't all the same?"
Murray said this kind of conversation happens because the public is misinformed about livestock and animal welfare. "It's good if we can take the time and have the patience to educate them," he said. "But it takes a great deal of patience to stand around and answer questions from people without becoming agitated."
When the woman left the dairy farm, she was grateful to Murray for having taken the time to explain the difference between dairy and beef cattle, and she realized that he was providing the best possible care for his cows.
What if Murray hadn't taken the time to explain his welfare practices? Would the woman have reported him for keeping cattle in a manner that she didn't believe was appropriate, or would she have discouraged her friends from purchasing cheese from the farmer's on-farm store?
Many consumers prefer to purchase eggs and meat from poultry farms that raise chickens outside. Farmers who explain pastured poultry as an alternative without denigrating other methods of raising poultry will help increase awareness of all production methods, rather than cause a divide within the industry.
"It's all about creating a positive experience for people when they come here," said Murray. "We hear about places people go to that aren't as positive as others, and that isn't good. Our goal is to make sure everyone has a pleasant experience while they're here."
What does the nonfarm public really want to know? Terry Fleck, executive director of the Center for Food Integrity (CFI), says the increase in questions about animal welfare is the result of consumers becoming more knowledgeable about where food comes from and how meat animals are managed.
People who are unfamiliar with a goat dairy may believe that young kids being raised on an artificial system with milk replacer might not be as well cared for as kids raised by their own mothers. Farmers should be ready and willing to explain that milk and feed rations are carefully formulated by experts, and that those experts are available to advise farmers on proper nutrition.
"Consumers are increasingly unsettled about the food system practices we operate with today," said Fleck, adding that answering the public's questions is one of the toughest issues livestock producers face. "There's increasing skepticism about information from sources with motives that may not be in the public's best interest. And there's growing concern that today's food system will put profit above principle."
Fleck says that CFI encourages those in the food system not to try to change consumers' beliefs and values about today's food, but to help consumers understand that their values more closely align with the concerns and expectations consumers have about today's food.
How do farmers build trust in an atmosphere of mistrust? Fleck says that research with focus groups shows that consumers respond favorably to messages that include farmer values such as "I'm committed," "I'm responsible," and "I'm ethical." Fleck added that consumers want to know what's in it for them: Is there value in what farmers are doing? "If we aren't inserting some kind of direct benefit to them or to society from the practice or the technology, they dismiss that," he explained. "What's important to the consumer might not be important to the farmer."
Trent Loos, a sixth-generation farmer who spends much of his time traveling throughout the country helping farmers and ranchers learn how to shape public opinion of agriculture, said that in many cases he finds the general public doesn't realize there's an image problem in agriculture. However, as he engages those people in a deeper conversation, they begin to express concerns about hormones, antibiotics, CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) and other hot-button issues.
Loos has found that while only about 3 percent of the public really cares about how animals are raised, that 3 percent is a vocal minority and can have a lot of influence. "They're the most affluent, and can easily get ahold of regulators and legislators," he said. "They themselves aren't the issue; it's the influence they have on people who might make it tougher for us to do business."
When it comes to the remaining 97 percent of people who might be interested in learning about animal agriculture, Loos said there isn't a lot of work to do; those consumers are willing to listen when farmers tell their own stories about what they are doing to produce more with less.
"As long as we're defending how we're taking care of animals instead of reminding 314 million Americans why we take care of animals, Wayne Pacelle [president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States] wins," said Loos. "We produce animals to improve the planet and to improve human health."
However, Loos said Pacelle isn't really the issue, that he and others who lead animal rights groups are simply a sideshow trying to distract people. "The real issue is divide and conquer," said Loos.
One of the biggest issues in animal agriculture is the division within the industry about how animals should be raised. If one farmer chooses to house pigs in a modern confinement system and another farmer keeps pigs outside, is one of them right and the other wrong? Loos said that misinformation about various husbandry methods and the subsequent taking of sides comes from people who are trying to carve out their own niche on either side of the equation.
Loos said, "We need to drop the wall and recognize that we should celebrate American agriculture where people have choices. They can choose to buy organic, they can choose to buy grass-fed, they can choose to buy conventional. It's about choice, and we need to celebrate those choices and stop saying 'Well, if you're raising grass-fed beef, you're creating twice the carbon emissions.' I don't care what the carbon emissions are; the country that doesn't produce carbon emissions is the country that's struggling to keep its people fed."
So do we need PR for agriculture? Loos said no.
"The only sustainable way to get this message across is for each person in the business of food production to accept the challenge and educate one person one day at a time," he said. "Get out of the frame of mind that you have to be an expert and just talk about what you're doing. Just be yourself and say 'Here's what I've done.' It comes back to grassroots people telling their own story in their own way, and by being a good listener in your own community."
The author is a frequent contributor and freelance writer who farms and raises Great Pyrenees in south-central Pennsylvania. Comment or question? Visit http://www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.
How You Can Help
Any interaction with those who are unfamiliar with farming is an opportunity to educate them about animal welfare, and it may be as simple as talking to them about the practices you use on the farm.
- Explaining animal behavior to those unfamiliar with animal husbandry can help bridge the producer-consumer gap.
- A common misperception among the nonfarm public is that animals in calf hutches are being raised for veal. Explain the reasons for using calf hutches and that veal calves are raised in housing that's appropriate for optimum welfare.
- Consumers often have a preconceived notion that dairy cattle are most content when outside on grass. Explain that there are numerous acceptable methods of raising and housing dairy cattle, and each system has advantages and disadvantages. The most important message is that no matter what system is being used, the farmer is providing cattle with the best possible food, shelter and veterinary care.
- Some consumers may not be able to distinguish beef from dairy cows, and often believe that the two types are the same. Explain the differences and talk about how keeping cattle comfortable throughout the seasons can be challenging no matter what system is being used.
- Pigs raised in outdoor systems don't necessarily have better welfare conditions. Fly control, adequate feed and shelter/shade must be provided for pigs living outside.
- People who are unfamiliar with a goat dairy may believe that young kids being raised on an artificial system with milk replacer might not be as well cared for as kids raised by their own mothers. Be ready and willing to explain that milk and feed rations are carefully formulated by experts, and that those experts are available to advise farmers on proper nutrition.
- Explaining pastured poultry as an alternative without denigrating other methods of raising poultry will help increase awareness of all production methods, rather than cause a divide within the industry.