Maintaining existing markets for pork products, cultivating new markets for existing products and creating new products for new markets are some avenues that the U.S. pork industry has sought, and continues to explore, for growth. When it comes to maintaining markets, there are several relationships that must be considered. End consumers, whether in restaurant or supermarket settings, are increasingly interested in social issues and the production processes employed in food production. Livestock products (meat and dairy products) certainly seem to get the majority of the spotlight in regard to consumers’ concern for production processes.

Shoppers in supermarkets and diners in restaurants have increased access to information via the Internet, and are in constant communication with one another via social media and alternative news sources about perceptions of animal agriculture. Even though most U.S. consumers are not directly in contact with livestock, concern for the treatment of animals, including those employed in food production, is evident — and increasing. While in the past consumers were mainly concerned with factors like the fat or nutritional content of pork, for example, today’s savvy shoppers are considering other factors, like the welfare of livestock (pigs), safety of workers employed on farms and potential environmental impacts (externalities) of livestock operations.

Large-scale changes in production practices are taking place in livestock production due to pressures from various interested parties. Changes such as the discontinued use of gestation stalls, for example, are being sought via traditional regulatory channels in some states, but are also being pushed via non-traditional market channels. Consider the cumbersome process of changing regulations, versus the oftentimes faster (and perhaps easier) channel of influencing key market actors; it is no surprise that consumers’ concerns are increasingly voiced to supermarkets and restaurants which, in turn, take action to satisfy their customers by placing pressure on supply-chain players. Changes sought via “the market,” rather than legislation or regulation, are increasingly common, and the use of market channels for communicating throughout the supply chain is unlikely to stop anytime soon.

A national-scale study completed at Purdue University by Nicole Olynk Widmar, Melissa McKendree, and Candace Croney in 2013 was focused on assessing consumers’ perceptions of various pork products. A total of 798 individuals from across the U.S. completed the survey, which was analyzed to investigate relationships between various consumer- and household-level characteristics, and their views on animal welfare.

The average age of survey respondents was 47, 48% of respondents were male, and the average household size was approximately two adults and 0.5 children. In addition to general household characteristics, survey respondents were asked in-depth questions regarding their perceptions of pork production practices, and views on the treatment of both companion and livestock animals.

Respondents were asked a number of questions related to pig welfare. When asked specifically about whether they recalled seeing media stories regarding the welfare of pigs, the majority of respondents, 65%, reported that they had not seen any media stories. Yet, a total of 14% of survey respondents reportedly reduced total pork consumption in the past three years due to animal welfare concerns. Even if consumers are not explicitly recalling having seen media stories on pig welfare, it is highly likely that they have been exposed to animal welfare information via media or social interactions.

Figure 1. Reported Recollection of Exposure to Media Stories Regarding Pig Welfare, by Source

Consumers report concern for the welfare of livestock animals, in general. Consumers were asked to report their level of concern for the welfare of livestock animals both raised domestically and produced outside the U.S. It is evident that there are, in general, larger proportions of consumers reporting extreme concern for livestock raised outside the U.S. Nonetheless, only 43% of respondents rated their level of concern for domestically produced livestock at 3 or below on the scale provided, as seen in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Reported Concern for Livestock Raised Both Domestically and Outside the U.S.

There are, presumably, a number of factors that may be related to consumer perceptions of pig welfare. Demographics, including age, gender, and/or political affiliation, were investigated with regard to reported levels of concern for domestically reared livestock. Those who indicated concern for the welfare of animals employed in domestic food production were more frequently women, younger, and more often owned a dog and/or cat than the participants who were neutral or not concerned. Of those reportedly concerned about the welfare of domestic food animals, 73% were dog and/or cat owners, while 58% of those who were reportedly neutral or not concerned owned dogs and/or cats.

Not surprisingly, those who reported concern for domestic food animals more often reported reducing pork consumption due to animal welfare concerns. Those who reported being not concerned about the welfare of domestic food animals more frequently self-reported as a member of the Republican political party, while those who reported being concerned were more frequently members of the Democratic Party.

Recently, a great deal of attention has been paid to linkages in consumers’ minds between the welfare of pets or companion animal species and the welfare of farm animals. It is common for animal welfare campaigns to link companion animals and farm animal issues. Given the vast number of U.S. households with pets and the relatively small number of people with direct experience with livestock care, it is certainly believable that companion species may be the point of reference for many people when it comes to animal welfare. The study highlights key demographic factors — including pet ownership — related to consumers’ perceptions of animal welfare. A total 66% of households surveyed reported owning at least one animal; 48% of households owned dogs, 41% owned cats, 3% owned horses and 10% owned other animals. Interestingly, all those who owned a horse also reportedly owned a cat and/or a dog.

Dog and/or cat owners were found to be statistically different from those who do not own a cat or dog across many different factors. When analyzing demographic characteristics, those who reported being dog and/or cat owners were more frequently female, younger, had larger households (more adults and children in the house), and higher weekly food expenditures. Dog and/or cat owners also had visited a farm with animals raised for meat or milk production more recently, and were more concerned about food-animal welfare for both domestically raised animals and animals raised outside the U.S. Dog and/or cat owners also more frequently reported having a source for animal welfare information, whether The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), or another source, than those who did not own a cat or dog. However, nearly half of the dog and/or cat owners did not report having a source for animal welfare information. It is hypothesized that owning a pet, regardless of your information source, predisposes one to be concerned about animal welfare. Therefore, the existence of the human-animal bond with dogs or cats potentially influences a person’s perceptions of food-animal welfare.

Due to recent media attention on livestock housing, especially regarding cages and housing systems for pigs and chickens, dog and cat owners were also asked if they confined their cats and/or dogs to a cage or kennel. If one accepts the potential for the public to link companion animal care with livestock treatment, the question of caging pets becomes of great interest to animal agriculture as various livestock producers, especially those raising pigs, face continued pressures to disadopt the use of stalls in favor of group housing or other alternative systems.

Potentially, survey respondents who cage their own animals may feel differently about caging other animals, including livestock, than those who do not cage their animals. Of the 65% of households that owned cats and/or dogs, 416 (80%) indicated that they did not confine their cats and/or dogs. The majority of those who specified they did confine their cat and/or dog only did so for less than six hours per day. Specifically, 56 (11%) households confined their cat and/or dog for less than six hours per day, 27 (5%) households did so seven to 12 hours per day, 13 (3%) households did so 13 to 18 hours per day and six (1%) households did so 19 to 24 hours per day. Those who cage their dog and/or cat more frequently stated that they reduced their pork consumption due to animal welfare concerns, and recalled media stories regarding pig welfare.

Figure 3. Cross Tabulations for Dog and/or Cat Owners Who Report Caging Their Dog and/or Cat, vs. Those Who Report Not Caging Their Dog and/or Cat

 

When looking at information sources on animal welfare, those who cage their dog and/or cat more commonly stated that they had an information source. Additionally, those who cage their dog and/or cat more frequently reported using sources other than HSUS or PETA. More dog and/or cat owners who cage their animals also reported being concerned about domestic food-animal welfare; however, only one statistical difference was found when looking at specific pork industry practices.

It is worth noting that no statistical differences were found among dog and cat owners who cage and do not cage their animals regarding pig housing (i.e., confining hogs indoors, farrowing crates, gestation crates and group pens). Agricultural industries have long speculated that people who cage their animals would be less apt to be concerned about the housing of hogs in crates or stalls.

However, this analysis finds that those who cage their cat and/or dog do not differ in their mean level of concern for pig housing situations from those who do not cage their cat and/or dog. On the contrary, as evidenced by higher reporting of reduction in pork consumption due to animal welfare concerns and more concern for domestic food-animal welfare, those who cage their animals seem to be overall more concerned about food-animal treatment.

Given the concern for understanding key consumer markets, analyses were conducted by regions of the country in which respondents lived. Those from the Midwest region (204 respondents) were statistically less concerned about pig welfare at the farm level than those from the Northeast (198 respondents) or West (184 respondents) regions of the U.S. A stark difference in animal welfare concern for pork industry practices is evident. For nearly all practices in question, respondents from the Midwest region were statistically less concerned than those from other regions of the U.S.

Additionally, those from the Midwest more frequently reported not having a source for animal welfare information than those from the Northeast or West regions. The Midwest states are among the top-producing hog states in the U.S.; potentially, the results suggest that those who are living in geographic areas familiar with hog farming may be less concerned about hog production practices. Beyond concern for pork production practices, respondents from the Midwest had a statistically lower mean level of concern for the welfare of livestock produced in the U.S.

Regional Differences

Recognition of regional differences is important, because if those who are most likely to interact with livestock animals (or any animals) are not cognizant or aware of concerns surrounding animal welfare, then potential problems could go unrecognized. Inherent differences across regions in terms of animal welfare concerns, especially when comparing livestock- and hog-producing regions to other regions, can yield challenges for communicating with consumers effectively.

The perceptions of today’s pork consumers regarding the treatment of livestock animals will impact the industry in the future via multiple avenues, including what products consumers demand, what they are willing to pay for those products, and fundamentally which markets will continue to exist, grow, shrink or cease to exist. Understanding the consumer demographics and characteristics which may be related to perceptions of livestock welfare, such as pet ownership, views of livestock practices, etc., can aid the pork industry in effectively communicating with its end consumers — and in understanding their concerns.

A key factor that was associated with general animal welfare concern was pet ownership. It is hypothesized that the bond between humans and animals and whether the individual reports having any source for animal welfare information play a primary role in an individual’s concern for animal welfare, more so than whether their source of information for animal welfare was HSUS or PETA.

Potentially, those who own pets feel stronger moral obligations to food animals and will be more concerned about their well-being. The increased altruism for food animals may stem from concerns arising from interactions with pets and then other additional factors, such as the source for animal welfare information, education, age and gender, which could further increase concern for animal welfare. This finding, which connects pet ownership to increased concern for livestock animals, will have implications for education, communication, and marketing.

Although a causal relationship cannot be established, pet ownership and increased concern for food-animal welfare appear to be correlated. Also, it is not necessarily that activists targeting pet owners cause people to become concerned about animal well-being, but it may be that those already concerned are connecting with groups that share their concerns. Any latent moral beliefs about perceived obligations to animals seem to be connected with (not necessarily caused by) pet ownership and human-animal bonds.