Current consumer research by the Center for Food Integrity indicates that most consumers today have no problem consuming meat, milk and eggs, as long as the animals that provide that food are treated decently and humanely. That said, only 25% of those consumers agree that livestock animals are in fact humanely treated. Concisely stated, this marks the “gap” of full consumer understanding and acceptable of modern livestock production.
Recently I had the opportunity to hear a consumer panel offer their opinions and concerns about the livestock animals that provide the protein to help sustain so many of us. On one hand, the panelists didn’t say that much new, or surprising. They all wanted affordable, safe, locally produced, fresh and minimally processed food. They expressed gratitude for the wealth of purchase options in today’s food marketplace, and acknowledged that, in many war-torn parts of the world, people have to stand in line for hours just to get daily rations of bread, or rice.
Here is struck me in their comments, though. They all wanted to know which production systems were “right” in enhancing food safety, animal care and environmental protection, while still being affordable for the farmer. They admitted confusion about what “organic” and “natural” really meant, and did not quite know who to turn to for the correct answers. But they wanted to believe, and place their trust in, “the people in the know,” meaning the farmers. They just weren’t sure that they could. One panelist said that, when groups like the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) rant about alleged animal cruelty, he doesn’t believe them. While he wants to believe farmers, he wants to “be assured that their intentions are pure.”
The agriculturalists in the audience stressed that one production system is not necessarily superior to another. “There is no one single way to farm,” one animal scientist said. In animal housing, stalls are not inherently bad, and pens are not necessary the best way to go. All housing systems have scientific, economic, and environmental tradeoffs. Whether the animal has enough space to turn around does not always improve an animal’s well being. And, the label “Humanely Raised” on the package can be very misleading if we don’t have a common definition of what that really means.
While all of those points are true, they weren’t the main message the consumers wanted – or needed – to hear. More importantly, they hoped for some reassurance that, while acknowledging that farmers must take into account many factors in making production decisions, animal comfort and well being remain paramount. The consumers left the room still feeling a bit confused — except for the sense that the farmers and agriculturalists in the room really cared about doing things right. And maybe that was the best the livestock community could accomplish in their time together.
Unfortunately, most farmers do not have the opportunity to talk directly with consumers. Instead, food marketers – and their package labels – do most of talking for them. But, we must find more occasions to have these conversations, because this is where the communications war for the hearts and minds of consumers will be won or lost.
Here are some action steps you can take:
1) Clarify in your own mind what “humanely raised” means to you. Be specific in your description, and, where possible, list personal examples.
2) Practice having conversations with consumers. Listen first, to find out THEIR values, along with their overall impression of modern livestock production.
3) Gather a list of reliable online information resources to give them, in case they want to follow up in their search for correct information. Remember, the goal here is NOT to convince them that you are right. Rather, it’s offering them your informed, compassionate opinion, to help them form their own conclusions. Here is a starter list: