Public Concerns About Animal Welfare Influence Policy Decisions
The 2019 Boehringer Ingelheim Expert Forum on farm animal welfare asked scientists and industry stakeholders whether consumers and citizens share similar values. ‘Consumers’ are defined as individuals that purchase animal-based products while ‘citizens’ were seen as what consumers would ideally like to purchase if they had no financial or other constraints. For example, people are willing to pay more money for products that are ‘free-range’ and offer outdoor access to animals. However, sales of welfare-friendly foods are reportedly lower than overall concerns for animal welfare, which suggests a discrepancy between behaviours and values.
Indeed, 82% of companies assessed in a survey reported a willingness to pay as a barrier for adopting improved animal welfare standards. Nonetheless, public concerns for farm animal welfare have resulted in influencing 77% of companies surveyed to phase out practices that severely confine animals, such as gestation crates for pigs and cages for laying hens. Thus, voicing your concerns to food companies does make a difference.
Societal concerns have also resulted in farm assurance schemes that compare the welfare standards of different companies in an easily accessible manner, such as info-graphs. See #ChooseAssured in the U.K. for an example. Accordingly, such welfare schemes can help people decide what products to buy. However, an international assessment of different companies’ welfare policies reported that, despite commitments to improve animal welfare, a major roadblock was assessing the accountability of companies’ policies. In other words, how do we actually know whether animal welfare commitments are being practiced? You can ask companies to release any data regarding their animals’ welfare and request transparency.
In addition to public pressures, other reasons discussed to improve farm animal welfare included antimicrobial resistance (i.e., when medications are no longer effective in treating viruses), which is largely caused by the increased use of antimicrobials in farm animals. Arguably, by tackling common welfare problems, like heat stress in dairy cows (which increases mastitis and consequently, antimicrobials), farmers can reduce their dependence on antimicrobials to treat diseases. Indeed, many welfare issues that increase the risk of diseases can theoretically be alleviated by improvements in farming practices. Consequently, such changes may interfere with productivity levels, which is another barrier for companies.
Throughout this report, the answers show that animal welfare and productivity are conflicting values for food companies. For animal advocates, however, the report shows that advocating for better welfare works, as companies show themselves to be malleable when met with pressure campaigns that change societal expectations.