Interest in how food is produced continues to be high, with consumers frequently expressing concerns about the sustainability of agricultural (and especially animal) production practices. However, it isn’t always clear how people conceptualize and prioritize their interests, especially relative to the animal products they consume.
Consumers typically consider many different attributes when making purchasing decisions for different food products. Research led by Jayson Lusk at Oklahoma State University queried the relative importance of attributes such as naturalness, taste, price, safety, convenience, nutrition, tradition, origin, fairness, appearance and environmental impact and concluded that the food values of highest importance to consumers were safety, price and taste. Not only are consumers interested in animal product attributes, they also express concern about the animal production practices that are used and their implications for animal welfare, food safety, the environment and society. While all of the livestock and poultry industries face similar public scrutiny, U.S. pork production, often the subject of undercover video surveillance in the past few years, has elicited enough concern to potentially impact consumer decision making. In fact, a study led by Nicole Widmar at Purdue University in 2014 found that 14% of U.S. consumers had reduced their consumption of pork products in the three years prior to the study because of animal welfare concerns.
In light of these findings, and keeping in mind skepticism about people’s willingness to pay for animal welfare, the Purdue team focused on trying to determine where animal welfare ranks relative to other attributes of pork products likely to be of importance to consumers. Animal welfare, environmental impacts, locally raised/farmed pigs and locally processed pork were analyzed along with price, food safety and taste in a nationally representative survey of U.S. consumers. In particular, the researchers focused on the relative importance of these attributes and tradeoffs people made between these different factors when considering buying pork products by asking people to rank their relative importance (highest versus lowest).
Food (pork) safety and taste were found to be the most important attributes to those who responded. What was surprising is that animal welfare was ranked third most important and was prioritized even over price. Identifying animal welfare as a high priority was positively correlated with expressing greater overall preference or priority for environmental impact, locally raised/farmed pigs and locally processed pork. Consumer demographic factors associated with the size preferences for animal welfare as a priority in shopping included age (25-44 years), having an annual income between $50,000 to $74,000, having a source for animal welfare information and being a cat or dog owner. Men gave lesser priority to animal welfare than did women. The demographic results line up nicely with those of other previously published studies, suggesting consistency relative to the question of who is most concerned or attentive to animal welfare when considering purchasing animal products.
In short, interest in animal welfare as it pertains to animal production and stated consumer preferences for animal products seems to be holding and may even be growing. Although questions likely persist as to whether actual consumer behavior matches up with people’s stated perceptions about the importance of animal welfare, evidence appears to be emerging that at least for some shoppers, it is important to match their values with their dollars spent.
Further, those who care about animal welfare likely prioritize other social responsibility factors, such as supporting local production and attending to the environmental impacts of production practices. These findings may be useful when making food production and marketing decisions, as they provide insight into how some members of the public may be thinking about “sustainability” of animal agriculture and thus, what may be perceived by them as acceptable practice.
This article is based on the following published research findings:
Cummins, A. M., Widmar, N. J. O., Croney, C. C., & Fulton, J. R. (2016). Understanding Consumer Pork Attribute Preferences. Theoretical Economics Letters, 6(02), 166. http://file.scirp.org/pdf/TEL_2016040615530843.pdf