The Ohio Livestock Coalition’s annual meeting and industry symposium in April 2011 examined legal, regulatory and public relations issues facing farmers. Below is a highlight from that conversation.
Joy Mench, an animal scientist from the University of California, Davis presented a model that divided animal care considerations into three categories:
– Mind – Feelings such as pain, fear and frustration;
– Nature – Species-specific behavior;
– Body – Animal health and physiology
When asked which of these should be given the most consideration, a study found that 46 percent of consumers emphasized mind, 40 percent nature and 14 percent body.
Mench pointed to conventional chicken cages, which do well in managing “body” issues such as internal parasites. But she said they fail to provide for the “nature” of the animal in cases such as perches and nesting areas. She said consumers don’t seem to care that conventional cages are better at preventing mortality, because the animal is going to be killed anyway.
“They just want the animal to live well while it’s alive,” she said.
She also believes that these separate aspects of animal care are not as conflicting as they’re sometimes made out to be. She challenged the industry to “think a little more creatively” to develop systems that balance these concerns.
“I have a high level of faith in producers to do that because producers are very innovative,” she said. Enriched cage systems, which provide scratch pads, perches and nest boxes, are an example of how that can be done, Mench said.
An audience member noted that regardless of what consumers say they want, most will only buy the cheapest product. But Mench said that was a problematic way to approach the issue.
“(Consumers) don’t feel it should be their responsibility to support an ethical structure,” she said, noting that they may look for more regulation to fill that role.
While animal welfare used to be seen as consistent with the farmers economic well-being, that attitude is changing. As a result, the compatibility of the producer’s self-interest and the welfare of the animals is increasingly questioned.
“Farmers are viewed as advocates for their economic self-interests,” she said, which means consumers want oversight to ensure animals are treated well.
Among Mench’s concerns are care standards that are not targeted at specific improvements in animal well-being. For example, a standard that only seeks to increase the space of an enclosure may provide no actual benefit to the animal. She is also concerned with the small number of researchers who are primarily focused on animal welfare and the establishment of state-by-state standards.
“One thing we have to think about is how we create a national policy framework,” she said.