Consumer Perception And Animal Welfare: Bridging The Gap
Consumer education is important for any movement hoping to vote with their dollars. Well-meaning but undereducated consumers may make decisions that actually go against their goals. To educate consumers, the animal advocacy movement must make clear the distinction between product certifications and product claims.
Certifications are titles which must be earned by appealing to a verifying body. For example, animal products certified Animal Welfare Approved must meet the criteria set by A Greener World, which includes the animals being raised on pastures or ranges their entire lives and being a suitable breed for their environment. If a brand wants to be Animal Welfare Approved, A Greener World must inspect their supplier and sign off on the certification.
A claim, on the other hand, has no such enforcement guarantee. Phrases like “natural,” “organic” and “free range” are examples of claims. The company making the claim is not compelled to follow through on their promises by anything besides bad publicity.
A survey of consumers and retailers by the ASPCA has shown, among other things, that many consumers and retailers are unaware of the weakness of claims; many actually judge unverified claims as stronger indicators of animal welfare than certifications. “Free range,” “cage free,” and “pasture-raised” are all rated by consumers as being very strong predictors of animal welfare, despite being unverified.
Despite the weakness of unverified claims concerning animal welfare, products that make them are incredibly popular. The survey shows that the majority of American supermarkets stock products labeled “free range,” “cage free,” “no antibiotics,” “pasture raised” and “humanely processed.”
Roughly half of stores carry Certified Humane products, and slightly over 40% of supermarkets stock American Humane Certified and Animal Welfare Approved items. Roughly 70% of stores report a growth in demand for animal welfare claims and certifications. The good news is that consumers are clearly interested in making more ethical choices about their food. The not-so-good news is that they are not necessarily educated enough to do so properly.
Animal advocates should look at this as an opportunity to educate and inform. Consumers who desire to make more ethical choices may be interested in knowing the facts behind the claims that products make. Educated consumers may further increase demand for products that have legitimate animal welfare certifications, forcing the industry to adopt new practices.
Furthermore, ethically-minded consumers may be more receptive to vegetarian and vegan messaging if they discover the lengths that the animal agriculture industry is going to mask their unethical practices. Any lack of information should always be treated as an educational opportunity, not a failing. Knowledge in the consumer-producer relationship is incredibly weighted in the producer’s favor – it’s no surprise that consumers are confused. Rather than condescend or chide uninformed consumers, animal advocates need to inform them.