A joint animal welfare survey conducted by the American Farm Bureau Federation and Oklahoma State University (OSU) produced three key lessons from telephone calls to more than 1,000 individuals across the United States, says F. Bailey Norwood, assistant professor of agricultural economics at OSU.

The first lesson is that the public cares far more about human welfare and farmers than they do farm animals, he says. The financial well-being of U.S. farmers was twice as important as the well-being of farm animals. Human poverty, the U.S. health care system and food safety were found to be more than five times more important than farm animal well-being, he says.

An innovative survey question revealed the suffering of one human was found to be equivalent to the suffering of 11,500 farm animals, and a majority of respondents felt that farmers should be compensated if forced to comply with higher farm animal welfare standards.

Norwood explains these responses do not suggest that farm animal welfare is not important. Rather, it implies that when public policy is being written, the interests of farm animals take a backseat to the interests of humans.

The second lesson is that consumers understand animal welfare is a reflection of their shopping decisions as well as the farmers’ decisions. Most consumers believe their personal food choices have a large impact on the well-being of farm animals, and that if consumers desire higher animal welfare standards, food companies will provide it.

The third lesson is that consumers are much more accepting of the use of gestation stalls for sows if they are given a reason for their use, other than reducing production costs.

For example, only 18% of consumers agreed with the statement, “housing pregnant sows in crates is humane.” However, when the statement was modified to, “housing pregnant sows in crates for their protection from other hogs is humane,” 45% agreed with the statement.

Still, the use of such stalls may always present a public relations problem, notes Norwood. As the survey showed, even when educated on gestation stalls, the majority of consumers still opposed their use.

However, the survey does suggest that efforts by organizations to educate the public are not in vain.