EU project seeks to improve consumers' knowledge of farm animal welfare

EU - An EU funded survey has found that while consumers are generally concerned by animal welfare, many fail to make the link between it and food products in the shops. Some consumers admit to consciously avoiding information on the welfare of animals involved in the production of the food that they purchase.
calendar icon 23 August 2006
clock icon 8 minute read

The survey was carried out within the framework of the of the Welfare Quality project, an initiative funded under the 'Food Quality and Safety' theme of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). Specifically, the project seeks to improve farm animal welfare. Based on feedback from different stakeholders involved in the animal production chain, namely the farmers, distributors and consumers, as well as scientists, the project aims to define innovative, knowledge-based, practical species-specific strategies to improve animal welfare and a monitoring system to assess animal welfare on the farm, during transport and slaughter.

Taking a 'farm to fork' approach, the project will also produce an information tool based on the monitoring system, to make animal husbandry practices more transparent and thereby help consumers to make informed choices about the products they buy.

The survey findings are based on population samples in France, Hungary, Italy, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. Respondents were first asked to rate the importance of animal welfare issues in general, and the majority agreed that they were important or very important. This ranged from 69 per cent of respondents in the Netherlands, 73 per cent in the UK and 75 per cent in France to 83 per cent in Hungary and Sweden. Norway and Italy scored the highest, with 84 per cent and 87 per cent of the respective populations saying that animal welfare mattered a lot to them.

On closer inspection, however the survey findings reveal that placing importance on animal welfare does not necessarily mean that people are more concerned about specific aspects of it. In fact, when asked to evaluate the living conditions of chickens, pigs and cattle, those respondents that rated the importance of welfare as high appeared to be less worried about the living conditions of these animals in their own countries and relatively unconcerned in particular about cattle and pigs. While Norwegian and Swedish respondents said that welfare mattered a lot to them, only 25 per cent and 23 per cent respectively expressed any worry over the conditions in which cattle were transported, compared to 58 per cent in Hungary and 56 per cent in Italy.

Similar disparities emerged when respondents were asked whether animal welfare was an influential factor when buying beef. Among Norwegians and Hungarians, 84 per cent see animal welfare as generally important, while only 26 per cent and 36 per cent respectively think of it when buying meat. Respondents were then asked to rate the importance of price, treatment (including the slaughter of cattle and outdoor access for hens), when buying eggs and beef. An average of 66 per cent of respondents rated the treatment of the animals as the most important factor.

On purchasing routines, responses again contradicted previously stated views. For example, although Hungarian (83) per cent and Italian (84 per cent) respondents said that animal welfare was important to them, 53 per cent and 51 per cent respectively said they found it too time consuming to find the products which were 'animal friendly'.

'While the research findings confirm that people across Europe think that animal welfare is important, they show that there are varying degrees of opinion and importance attached to welfare which suggests that no universal concept of animal welfare exists,' said Dr Unni Kjærnes of the National Institute for Consumer Research in Norway, one of the project partners.

The complex nature of the relationship between consumers and animal welfare was explored in a preceding focus group analysis in the seven study countries. It showed that the popular understanding of animal welfare only really makes sense within certain cultural-linguistic contexts. For example, in French, while there is a vocabulary to express notions of respect and care for animals, the term 'welfare' only tends to be used with specific reference to human wellbeing. This may go some way towards explaining the French focus group's reactions to a list drawn up by scientists about welfare concerns. They found certain areas of welfare concern like emotional stress, social withdrawal and behavioural disorders inappropriate, while some of the language used was deemed 'too human'.

The list of animal concerns also included more basic areas of welfare such as provision of food and water and health aspects. Some Dutch participants expressed concern, even shock, that these would be included in a monitoring scheme, because they perceived it as an indication that the welfare of animals in current farming practices is probably worse that they had originally thought.

The focus group interviews also revealed that in most countries, the majority of the focus group participants had a limited knowledge of animal farming practices, but associated negative welfare with industrial-intensive methods of production (factory farming), large scale production, and associated positive welfare with small scale production and extensive production. 'Organic' was unanimously perceived as the most welfare friendly system of production across the seven study countries. This ambiguous understanding leads consumers to choose certain product labels and brands over others.

Many of those interviewed, particularly in the UK, Sweden and the Netherlands, considered labelling as a useful source of information for assessing the animal friendliness of products. In Italy and France, brands were considered important for assessing the welfare friendliness of products even though in most brands there is little or no explicit reference to animal welfare. In Norway and Hungary no importance was attached to branding.

However, in spite of labelling and other information, a significant number of participants in the focus groups appeared to not want to know about animal welfare conditions in relation to the foods they were consuming. 'Some seem to deliberately avoid knowledge about these issues, so that they would not have to face up to difficult ethical dilemmas,' said Dr Kjærnes

For example, one interviewee said that she ate very little meat. She added that if she knew more about the animals involved she would be too conscious of how the animals are killed and would certainly stop eating meat. Other respondents delegated the responsibility to third party actors. 'If there is a welfare issue, some consumers see it as a regulatory issue between the farmer and the government. They may even feel powerless, feeling they can do nothing about it.

'The findings from both the survey and the focus groups may appear contradictory at times. That's because people's opinions are not always reflected by their actions as buyers of food,' said Dr Kjærnes. 'This may, in turn, be related to different market situations, cultural traditions, and societal divisions of responsibility.'

Complex they might be, but these findings are providing very useful insight into consumer opinion and knowledge about animal welfare which will serve to develop the project's monitoring scheme and, above all, its information system for the public.

Although yet to be put in place, Dr Kjærnes said that the information system will indicate different grades of welfare. This labelling could, for instance, use a varying number of stars or different colours to help purchasers differentiate between animal friendly products and products where the welfare of the animals has been less than adequate. 'The information system could also provide different levels of information: simplified information and more detailed information if people wish to know more about issues related to animals' living conditions and the food products they purchase.

'The idea is to provide that level information that consumers demand and not keep information from them. In daily practices, it's obvious that consumers cannot deal with difficult and emotional information.' She added that the system could eventually introduce differentiated labelling using stars to help consumers choose the most animal friendly products.

It is not yet decided who would manage the monitoring and information systems, said Dr Kjærnes, but the structure will be developed in close collaboration with EU authorities. She emphasised that it should however be run independently. 'Trust is not only about providing information, it's ensuring that the structure supplying it is transparent and holds the different actors accountable,' she said. 'Our findings show that people are more sceptical of politicians and commercial actors and globally place more trust in third parties that are independent.'

Dr Kjærnes concluded by saying that the European Centre for Animal Welfare that was proposed in the European Commission's recent Action Plan for Animal Welfare could play a role here.

The project runs until 2009.

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