Public expectations of farm animal welfare (Agriculture vs the Public – Part 5)

Written by Steph Coombes, Central Station editor

In 2015 and 2016 I attended Kansas State University, studying a Master of Science in Agricultural Education and Communication. As a part of my degree, I was required to undertake a research thesis.  

It wasn’t difficult for me to choose a research topic. I’ve been a passionate “agvocate” (agricultural advocate) since 2012. Our industry has had a lot of “agvocates” – spurred on by the live export ban and subsequent continuous dialogue ever since about “social license”.

Here’s the thing though – while I love to advocate for agriculture, I see a lot of people doing it  poorly – to the point where it really frustrates me, and I think they are doing more harm than good for our industry.

The following is an excerpt from the literature review component of my Masters’ Thesis, “Discursive features of animal agriculture advocates”. I’m going to post it over a series of blogs, and I sincerely hope this research challenges the way you think about communicating about agriculture.

You can find the whole thesis here.

Find all 11 articles here.

Public expectations of farm animal welfare

Measuring and benchmarking of public attitudes toward, perceptions, and expectations of animal welfare has become standard practice in many countries and industries; when public expectations of animal welfare are known, animal agriculture industries can appropriately identify and manage risk.

With the exception of vegans, and vegetarians to an extent, research indicates that people believe that animals are a legitimate source of food and fiber (Te Velde et al., 2002). This is also supported by the increasing consumption patterns of meat, dairy, and egg products (Speedy, 2003).

With regards to the use of animals for teaching, research, and testing, Williams, Dacre, and Elliot (2007) found that 70% of respondents in New Zealand (national representation, aged 16+, N=750) agreed that it was acceptable on the condition that no unnecessary suffering was involved. Animal use for research into life-threatening and debilitating diseases were most justified, and research for safety-testing of cosmetics and household chemicals were least justified.

The Center for Food Integrity (2014) asked respondents in the USA (national representation, n=2,005) to rate their level of agreement with the statement: “If farm animals are treated decently and humanely, I have no problem consuming meat, milk and eggs,” to which 55% strongly agreed, and 41% moderately agreed. Coleman et al. (2005) found that 62% of respondents in Australia (random sample, n=1,061) disagreed with the statement “Demand for food is more important than humane treatment.” In general, the public believes that animals should not be exposed to unnecessary pain or suffering (Coleman, 2007; Lassen et al., 2006; Vanhonacker et al., 2008).

It is beyond these shared beliefs though, as to how “humane treatment” is translated into animal production, that sees public expectations become divergent. The Five Animal Freedoms (Farm Animal Welfare Committee, 1979) are the most referred to and accepted principles of animal welfare (Potard, 2015) and are considered to be the minimum animal welfare expectations of the wider public in Western society. They are:

  1. freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition; appropriate comfort and shelter (often reworded as freedom from discomfort);
  2. prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment of injury and diseases (often reworded as freedom from pain, injury and disease);
  3. freedom to display most normal patterns of behavior and;
  4. freedom from fear (often reworded as freedom from fear and distress) (Farm Animal Welfare Committee, 1979).

The freedom for animals to move and the freedom to express natural behaviors appear to be expectations that consumers feel are not being met (Vanhonacker, Verbeke, Van Poucke, Buijs, & Tuyttens, 2009), and place a high importance on (Te Velde et al., 2002; Vanhonacker et al., 2008). Belgian citizens perceived current stocking densities and pen sizes across animal production to be inadequate, compared with other aspects of animal welfare (Vanhonacker et al., 2009).

An expectation of animal production to be “natural” also has become evident through consumer research (Lassen et al., 2006). However, Lassen et al. (2006) found that some consumers were willing to accept practices that were unnatural, such as tail docking in piglets, if they were deemed necessary to prevent pain and other forms of suffering.