By Robin Ganzert, PhD
As businesses look for ways to connect with consumers’ changing attitudes, there’s one area where consumers are united: They want humane treatment of farm animals. Yet surprisingly, despite the media buzz surrounding companies that have animal welfare programs, it’s an area that’s also wide open for expansion.
According to a survey conducted by my organization, the American Humane Association, 93 percent of Americans say buying products from humanely raised animals is important to them. They report that humane labels are more important to them than others, such as “organic” or “natural.” However, 36 percent say they don’t buy such products because they aren’t available.
Of the 10 billion animals raised on U.S. farms and ranches every year, only a small percentage are certified under an independent humane program. American Humane Certified is the country’s largest farm animal welfare certification program and ensures the humane treatment of more than 1.25 billion farm animals — no small number, to be sure, but there is still a long way to go in providing a humane guarantee to all Americans.
The last 15 years have seen an explosion in programs committed to the humane treatment of animals. American Humane Certified was launched in 2000; Chipotle and its animal welfare requirements have been around about the same length of time; Whole Foods’ Global Animal Partnership launched in 2008. Third-party certification programs serve as the nexus between consumer demand and companies that want to supply humanely raised products to customers.
Humanely certified food does cost more, which is a factor in any business decision. But 76 percent of Americans say they are willing to pay more for such products, according to our survey. A Cone Communications issues tracker also found that 69 percent of consumers say that animal welfare is a significant factor in food purchases, matching the results of a separate Texas A&M survey.
Of course, what people say to a pollster and what they do at a grocery store are sometimes two separate things. To find out, Oklahoma State University economists designed a simulation to more realistically measure consumer decision-making on humane food purchasing. They found that consumers were willing to pay more for humanely raised egg and pork products from a variety of farming systems. For instance, consumers were willing to pay 41 cents more per dozen for eggs from hens housed in cages with enriched environments.
The results in the real world are also clear to see. Several major companies have seen success in making the transition to higher animal welfare. One challenge is finding a consistent and reliable source of humanely certified products. Chipotle’s stock took a slight hit recently due to its inability to source pork over the past several months under its internal animal-rearing standards. So, the question arises: Is humanely raised food going to be consistently available?
The answer is yes — if a humane certification program has a broad base of support and isn’t too narrowly tailored. And this is a key distinction. Whole Foods Market has an animal-welfare system for its producers, but Whole Foods also knows that its customers have higher incomes. They can afford to shop from niche farming systems that frankly couldn’t be replicated on a scale to feed our entire country.
In contrast, a broader system must cater to all Americans across income levels. Fortunately, animal welfare and affordability aren’t mutually exclusive. Scientific advisory panels (including ours) have found that there are a number of different methods for raising animals that are humane and affordable. For instance, enriched cages for egg-laying hens only add a penny to the cost of an egg while improving living conditions for the animals.
Adopting a third-party humane certification is not only a way for companies to differentiate themselves — it is something that benefits farmers and producers, meets the growing expectations of consumers, and gives better lives to the animals who feed our nation.
Image: Stock image
Robin Ganzert, PhD, is President and CEO of the American Humane Association.