Candace Croney, Ph.D., director of the Center for Animal Welfare Science and a professor of animal behavior and well-being at Purdue Univ. has done important research on how consumers view the use of meat. She used a type of questionnaire, called “forced choice,” which assists in facilitating more realistic answers. In the minds of the consumer, health and food safety come first, environmental concerns are second and animal welfare is third or fourth. The issue of animal welfare is now broadening into a broader concept of social responsibility. She also makes it clear that science cannot provide all the answers to ethical questions.

Her research revealed a surprising conclusion. Animal welfare is at the top of the list of consumer concerns for both the most affluent consumers and those in the low-income demographic. The interest in animal welfare among low-income consumers may be related to labor issues. They may perceive a relationship between poor working conditions for people and poor conditions for animals. Welfare is a lower priority for middle-income consumers. Croney also warns the industry that statements about feeding starving people are not persuasive. Her research has also shown that the undercover videos and other work by animal activists has caused some consumers to reduce milk consumption by as much as 12 percent. A similar drop in pork consumption has occurred in a segment of the population.

Connecting the dots

Animal welfare has three basic issues. Each one of these issues requires a different approach.

1. Improvements in management to prevent overt animal abuse during handling: Other issues related to management practices are: lameness, severe liver abscesses, lung adhesions, hernias, and other obvious problems that may cause suffering. The industry has done a wonderful job improving animal handling, but unfortunately, there are some people who still find it difficult to admit that problems exist.

2. Housing issues: Phase out the most restrictive forms of housing such as sow gestation stalls and small battery cages. Eventually everybody will have to do it.

3. Issues requiring problem solving: The issue of the use of slow-growing broiler chickens is a prime example. Going back to the slowest growing birds would increase feed consumption up to 20 to 25 percent. From a sustainability standpoint, this is a huge waste of feed. Perhaps the solution is to slow down just a little bit, maybe 2 to 5 percent. This issue may have complex tradeoffs. When I discuss feed conversions with consumers, I like to paint a visual picture of the feed waste. If there are four semi-trailers at a truck stop, the slowest growing chickens will add a fifth truck.

Improvement sharing

The poultry industry is the worst when it comes to telling people about the good things they have done. They have made improvements in reducing lameness in broilers, but nobody knows about it. Today a bird has much heavier legs. Thirteen years ago, in my book, “Animals in Translation,” I wrote about extremely aggressive broiler breeder roosters that killed the hens. To prevent the roosters from killing the hens, they had to cut their toes off. Today, the rooster is a nice guy, therefore he is able to keep both his toes and claws. After I saw these roosters in 2017, I went home to find research papers about improvements in rooster behavior. I spent three hours on Google Scholar, but there were no research papers in the published scientific literature. All of the research has gone commercial proprietary.

In the developed world of the US, Canada, Europe, Australia and other places, budgets are shrinking in all areas of research. More and more research will be proprietary and never published. This is bad for the meat industry because when they fix something, nobody knows about it.