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Consumer concerns about meat are no fad

Animal welfare expert says livestock producers need to both 
‘raise the bar’ and speak up about improvements they’re making

Global concerns about animal welfare are having an impact on meat purchasing, and the food industry needs to adapt to this new reality.

“For the vast majority, price, taste and convenience have been key — but one of the issues that goes across the board now is transparency,” said Lesley Mitchell, international head of policy for World Animal Protection, a non-profit founded in the early ’80s.

“People, particularly millennials, are increasingly concerned about health, wellness and food safety, including animal welfare,” the London-based animal scientist said at the Global Conference on Sustainable Beef last month.

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“Animal welfare is no longer a point of contention or a discussion of whether or not we should have it. It’s fundamentally part of the picture.”

Agriculture has some major issues in terms of animal welfare, particularly when it comes to confinement spaces for pigs and laying hens.

“There is a sea change around improving the basic standard systems that have existed for the last 30 to 40 years,” she said. “Animals suffer in those systems and they need to change to reflect the needs of animals in terms of their behaviour as well as their health.”

Many of these messages are not just rhetoric spouted by animal activists, but real animal welfare issues based on science, she said.

“I am an animal scientist from Oxford by background. I can comfortably say that in many instances, confined spaces cause animals to suffer. I’m not widening that to all production, but it’s an issue and people should hear it.”

What surveys find

Consumers around the world are indicating they’re making purchasing decisions based on animal welfare. An ongoing large-scale European survey called Eurobarometer that has been tracking attitudes on economic, political and social issues — has found that four out of five people want better welfare for farm animals, with 60 per cent indicating they will pay more for it.

In China, 71 per cent of people polled about pig production consider the welfare of animals a factor in their decision to purchase meat, said Mitchell. Eighty-three per cent of those polled in China want pigs raised in spaces that give them the freedom to move, and three-quarters said they would pay more for it.

“This is a big deal in a country where you have a massively urbanizing population but also a growing economy where people are going to be eating more of that product and have the ability to choose,” she said.

A survey of young American college students found they believed factory-farmed meat was worth less and people were less willing to buy it.

“We know that about one per cent of people in the U.S. and a higher number in the EU are expressing desire to buy high-welfare-raised animals,” said Mitchell. “People have choice, motivation and information and that’s something they are moving towards. The vast majority is looking for a life worth living for animals in the production chain.”

Changes needed

These survey findings mean producers need to provide systems suited to the behavioural, psychological, and physiological needs of animals.

“There are things that are fundamental to your life that will prevent you from experiencing stress. I think that’s the concept that people have,” she said. “They want animals to have a life worth living. They don’t want to feel guilty, or feel bad or think that their food has come from something they wouldn’t want to touch themselves.”

Producers, fast-food outlets, and retailers have the opportunity to communicate on the middle ground, she said. And one way they can do that is by communicating through brands and demonstrating that the bar has been raised.

Bad stories taint the industry, so it’s important to raise the bar and reach a consensus that this benefits everyone.

“Raising that bar and having clarity of commitments and celebrating those achievements is key. You guys have incredible stories to tell,” she said.

“If you’re doing these things, be proud of them, speak up, stand up, but make sure it’s not greenwashing because people will pull that rug out from underneath you in seconds.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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