I have been involved firsthand in many of the changes that are being required of agriculture to respond to animal welfare demands by consumers. I have noticed a few things that I think are very interesting, and, frankly, movie-worthy.
Consumer pressure has pushed for the removal of gestation stalls for sows and caged housing for laying hens, pressure against fast growing broiler chickens, and removal of antibiotics, hormones and growth promotants in all animals. We can debate the end result of many of these requests, and whether they actually result in improved animal welfare, or whether the gain is worth the loss in other areas such as environmental impact, human health or economics. That is interesting, but the question I keep running up against is whether the public ACTUALLY WANTS the things they are “asking” for.
Huh? I know you are asking yourself if I’ve bumped my head or drank too much (questions I’ve had to face far too often in my career), but bear with me. I am going to use caged chickens as an example to show you what I mean (the blog is not Mikethepigvet, after all).
Don’t get me wrong….I understand that animal welfare is a big concern for some people, and those people have been making choices of what to buy based on their values for years. And I believe that almost everyone has a desire, all things being equal, that animals be treated well. BUT, remember that improving animal welfare makes eggs more expensive…cage free eggs will always be more expensive than caged eggs, and organic eggs will always be more expensive than both. Does the general public want welfare improvements enough to pay for them?
Think back a couple years….on TV is a lovable guy who works for A&W, and he is telling you that you can get a burger that is free of hormones, antibiotics and guilt (I might be paraphrasing). This ad campaign was hugely successful, and A&W became a much bigger
player in the fast-food arena, despite not bringing back the drive in. A&W had identified a concern held by some of the consumers, and addressed it. They were seen as good, responsive corporate citizens, and gained trust and goodwill.
Other restaurants had to respond…they were losing business. Enter McDonalds. They had been struggling with their image as the prototypical fast-food outlet and blamed for singlehandedly causing the obesity trend in the world. In response, they rolled out all day breakfast and pledged to source eggs from only cage-free hens. They had a very solid response and uptick in business and image.
In Ronald’s eyes, the public really WANTED cage free eggs….the switch was in response to public values. People responded to McDonald’s doing something that made them seem like “good guys”…..plus, Egg McMuffins are delicious.
Other restaurants saw a behemoth like McDs moving to cage-free and followed suit, because the public wanted it.
Around the same time, surveys were done by activist groups that showed that 90+% of people felt it was important to treat animals kindly and that confinement was not kind.
So….come to my part of the world. Over the past few years, more chickens have been housed in aviaries and other cage-free houses in Ontario….to meet the commitments made by the big retailers. Everyone built a little bigger than they needed to, because – hey, the public wants cage-free eggs, and the market would do nothing but expand, and eggs that didn’t go to the food retailers would sell like hotcakes (also delicious) in the grocery store.
Why, then, are there thousands of dozens of eggs being produced in aviaries and floor barns in Ontario being sold as regular eggs….without earning the premium price that is necessary to pay for the more expensive method of production? There are cage-free eggs front and center in every egg display in every grocery store in the province…..I have trouble finding the regular eggs that I buy (they are at knee level, near the back of the cooler). I thought the public WANTED cage-free eggs.
Why, then, has the demand for specialty eggs not increased noticeably? It continues to creep slowly upwards, but the number of organic, free-run, and cage-free eggs bought in the store is essentially the same, and well less than 10% of eggs sold. (I don’t count omega-3 eggs in this, because they are produced by changing the birds diet, and are laid predominantly by chickens in cages).
Consider this…..are consumers responding to the willingness of the restaurants to show that they are responsive and “good guys”, more than an alignment with specific animal welfare priorities. Consumers “accept” the changes in the restaurants, but don’t “choose” those same eggs in the store.
The implications for farmers are huge….they are going to change their way of housing birds, but if they invest millions into non-cage systems, but the public doesn’t want to buy them they will literally go broke. If they invest millions in the new furnished cage systems, and the public DOES demand cage-free in the store, they will go broke. Makes me glad I’m not making the decision right now, but it does make me worry for the friends I have in the industry.
Mike the Chicken Vet