To understand animal welfare concerns, farmers must first understand how consumers now view animals.
Why animal welfare is such a hot-button issue
We’ve all seen the sickening animal abuse videos of cows being abused on farms and at slaughter plants. Such abuse—real, coerced or maliciously altered images—resonates strongly with the public.
Such scenes would undoubtedly have raised eyebrows a generation or two ago, too. But the revulsion now is so strong that it jeopardizes the social license that dairy farmers have with the general consuming public, says Jennifer Walker, director of dairy stewardship for Dean Foods and Gail Golab, director of the animal welfare division of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
"When we lose consumers’ trust, we lose our social license, which will then lead to increased regulation," Walker says.
There are a number of reasons consumer attitudes have changed. And farmers ignore them at their peril.
Prior to World War II, a fourth of the U.S. population was involved in food production in some way. And Americans spent a quarter of their income on food.
Today, middle- and upper-income families spend less than 10% of their incomes on food, and much of that is spent eating out. American consumers are three or more generations removed from the farm, with little understanding of how food is actually produced.
Our ethical world has also changed. First came the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Then came feminism in the 1970s and 1980s. And then concern expanded to endangered species and the planet’s welfare.
What has changed is people’s moral circle. In the past, they were most concerned with the well-being of themselves and their immediate family. But as affluence increased and individuals started recognizing the rights and plight of other groups, their moral circle grew to include others.
"What’s different is that we now include animals in our moral circle," Golab says.
Family structures have also changed. In the past, multiple generations lived together in the same house or nearby. Today, families are stretched coast to coast, or even internationally. "So now people are using animals and pets for social stability," Golab says.
Pets have become "family," almost as important as children and grandchildren. "In some cases of domestic violence, abused women won’t leave a relationship out of concern for their animals," Golab says. Other studies show homeless people will go without food themselves in order to feed their animal companions.
In other words, Golab says, "animals have moved from the center of our plates to the center of our hearts."
Understanding this new relationship is critical to dairy farmers when they try to relate to consumers. Agribusiness can be seen as self-serving: "If we don’t take care of our cows, they won’t produce" no longer resonates with consumers.
USDA studies suggest 25% or more of all cows are lame, with many in chronic pain.
"The message should be: ‘We take care of our cows because it is the right thing to do,’ " Golab says.
The dairy industry needs to be honest and authentic. "It’s crucial to understand that transparency is expected," Walker says.
Almost as critical: determining if animal welfare and audit programs are designed to address the worst abuses or are they designed to improve welfare of the national herd. Walker says the following points are crucial:
- "If you say you’re doing something, do it and be ready to prove it," she says. Having guidelines for lameness of less than 10% of cows is great. But it rings hollow when USDA studies show that the actual lameness incidence on farms is 25% or more.
- Don’t make promise you can’t keep.
- Learn from the mistakes and successes of other farmers and other industries.
- Don’t just tell consumers what you think that they want to hear.
- Admit when you’re wrong, stop making excuses and correct the mistakes.
In the end, farmers must understand that the consumer is really each and every one of our customers, Walker says.
- May 2013