CONSUMERS are the bread and butter and, sometimes, the bane of animal agriculture's existence. Interpreting their behavior can be ... challenging.
For example, U.S. consumers demand food that is safe, palatable, consistent in quality and availability and inexpensive.
What does U.S. animal agriculture deliver? Food that is (for the most part) safe, palatable, consistent in quality and availability and cheap.
So, what is the problem?
Consumer demands are constantly evolving. People now want food that is ethically produced — environmentally responsible, locally grown, organic and, definitely, animal friendly.
Consumer behavior, however, can be rife with contradictions. For example, consumers claim to want more information about how food is produced but often willfully ignore information sources that might provide it. Many desire federal assurance of food safety and quality but, in other instances, state their distrust of government agencies.
Consumer demands for product attributes may also, at times, appear to be in conflict. For instance, in the U.S., consumers expect low-cost, uniform food, but increasingly, they condemn the corporatization of animal production that primarily permits this to occur in the U.S.
There is increasing demand for higher animal welfare standards, but most consumers are unwilling to pay a premium for welfare assurance at the point of purchase in supermarkets.
What does one make of this?
According to Nicole Olynk Widmar, assistant professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University, today's consumers are concerned about U.S. food production practices in general but are particularly concerned about how livestock animals are raised, handled and treated.
For those who are increasingly unfamiliar with production agriculture, livestock animals offer consumers a chance to relate to the conversation about food production. With so many households owning pets, debates about the care and welfare of animals — including livestock and poultry — are much easier to relate to than those about cropping systems, for example. Thus, animal agriculture invites social debates by its sheer nature.
A fundamental disconnect exists between consumers' increased interest in animal welfare and markets for animal products. In supermarkets and restaurants, consumers purchase meat, milk and fiber products that come from livestock animals. However, animal welfare refers to the animals employed in the production of these products. Thus, an inherent disconnect exists.
Consumer labels on retail food products include labeling of animal welfare attributes when consumers purchase bacon, for example, but it's not bacon welfare that is in question; it is the welfare of the pig from which the bacon was made.
Also, there is no way, at the point of purchase, for consumers to distinguish between or verify the differences in how well the pig was treated before it became bacon. Consumers simply have to trust what is on a label, assuming that there is one that speaks to welfare and that the source of the information is credible to them.
Another challenging question arises for livestock producers, marketers and all those involved in the supply chains for various meat and milk products. Do consumer preferences and demands for animal welfare attributes vary depending on the specific product being purchased?
For example, do consumers have varying willingness to pay for, say, dairy cattle welfare depending on whether they are purchasing yogurt versus ice cream? Both yogurt and ice cream are made from milk, which comes from dairy cows.
However, Olynk and Ortega (2013) recently found that consumer preferences for verification of attributes of dairy cattle rearing, including access to pasture, antibiotic use and recombinant bovine somatotropin use, varied significantly depending on the specific dairy product in question.
Consumers placed a higher valuation on verified dairy cow welfare attributes for yogurt than ice cream, as measured by their willingness to pay a premium for such attributes in the respective products.
Why might these differences exist? Is yogurt somehow more closely related to the cow, in the minds of consumers, than ice cream?
Perhaps the consumption occasion drives those feelings toward the welfare of the animal employed in the production of food products. While yogurt is generally regarded as a healthful snack, breakfast or lunch item, ice cream is more often seen as a celebratory food item or a special treat. Nonetheless, ice cream and yogurt are both made from milk, which comes from cows.
Many questions remain unanswered. What is evident is that consumers continue to demand changes in animal rearing systems, and lack of direct experience with farming or knowledge of production systems does not preclude them from having and expressing preferences and opinions regarding such practices.
While many consumers are interested in the lowest-price products, some consumers will pay more for enhanced welfare — in some products. Clearly, the welfare of the front half of the animal affects that of the back half, but once products arrive in the supermarket, it is possible to purchase one or the other.
The challenge for producers, therefore, is: If consumers will pay more for enhanced welfare in one product but not another, what is the optimal way to ensure both livestock animal welfare and the bottom line?
*Dr. Candace C. Croney is associate professor of animal behavior and well-being at Purdue University. Nicole Olynk Widmar is assistant professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University.