RECENTLY, a study from Purdue University evaluating consumer perceptions of the welfare implications of swine production practices and sources of information people use to form those perspectives has garnered quite a bit of attention.
Among the key findings to date are that respondents were most concerned about housing pigs in crates or stalls and keeping them indoors. The top three areas of concern relative to the welfare of pigs at different stages or segments of production were processing, on-farm practices and transport.
A large majority (75%) did not think that they had seen stories about pig welfare in the media, and more than half could not identify a source of animal welfare information. Of those who did, most relied on The Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
The latter finding has become a focal point of frustration and concern for many involved in livestock production. Some have suggested that the data show clear avenues for animal agriculture to exploit in regard to using social media and other sources to better reach consumers.
As one of the co-investigators on the study, it is important to note that the study is ongoing and that the data have not yet been published. Therefore, the results should be taken cautiously.
But, assuming that the data are correct, their interpretation thus far has been superficial. Collectively, they potentially provide some insight into the emerging consumer/producer dichotomy.
First, it is a glaring red flag that people who do not think they have seen media stories on pig welfare identified on-farm production and housing as major issues in regard to pig well-being.
Given all of the possible concerns a lay person might have about factors that potentially harm the well-being of an animal raised for meat, it is inconceivable that these would be the respondents' primary concerns in the absence of media stories and public discussions occurring in venues to which they are exposed.
What this suggests is that messages, articles, stories and discussions about the welfare of pigs and other animals have become so ubiquitous that consumers who responded could no longer identify a media point source from which they got their information.
Here is the issue that should raise concern for animal agriculture. Apparently, everyone but agriculture is reaching consumers -- and in ways that are so frequent, so non-invasive and so easily accessible that they do not perceive themselves as being targeted for education on pig welfare or related issues.
The idea that agriculture should respond with more obvious attempts to reach such consumers using the same methods and sources they are currently avoiding is, therefore, faulty.
As the respondents reported, they are not using scientific, government or animal industry sources for information on animal care and welfare, so trying to draw them in via "agvocacy" sites or agricultural social media is likely to be seen as more of the same and is probably not going to work.
The question of focus, therefore, should be less on why consumers persist in relying on animal activist groups for information on animal welfare and more on why they are not utilizing agricultural sources.
Is it that consumers do not know such sources exist or that they cannot easily access them, or could it be that they just do not like or trust them?
It would not be surprising if lack of trust were a major factor. Like it or not, animal agriculture operates from a credibility deficit when it comes to animal well-being, and having experts on the topic does not (fully) offset it.
Who is the average person likely to trust regarding who has animals' best interests at heart: those in the business of raising animals to kill them, or those perceived as being in the business of saving them?
Operating from the premise, then, that consumers just need more information and better or more engaging ways to get it is too simplistic of an explanation for what is currently happening.
As the old adage goes, it's not just what you know but who you know. In other words, who is providing the information on animal welfare and what that person or entity is perceived as representing may be even more important than what they are conveying and how they are doing so.
*Dr. Candace Croney is an associate professor of animal behavior and well-being in the department of animal sciences at Purdue University. In her next article, Croney will look at the role of cultural cognition on science transmission, discussing the failure to communicate science and its implications for animal agriculture, along with other factors affecting consumer trust and behavior.