Convincing supermarket chains that they need to adopt animal welfare policies continues to be a slow, sometimes compelling, process.
Ultimately, the consumer dictates what happens. Other considerations include the cost of implementing changes and how the added expense is incorporated into the selling price. Then, there's the larger societal debate taking place: Do animals qualify for rights? Or, is it enough to provide for their well-being until slaughter?
“In animal welfare, animals are looked as a resource for humans,” said Philip Lobo, communications director for the Animal Agriculture Alliance, which represents members ranging from ranchers and processors to feed companies and some restaurant chains. “Animal rights is more emotionally or philosophically based, and it tends to transfer human qualities onto animals.”
The distinction between welfare and rights promises to be a ripe area of discussion as organizations like the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals continue to raise public awareness of animal cruelty. Americans were appalled at the graphic images from the undercover video shot at Hallmark Meat Packing in California, where downer cattle were prodded with bangsticks and pushed with forklifts.
That revelation resulted in the largest meat recall in U.S. history, with more than 143 million pounds declared unfit for human consumption. The public grew more outraged when it learned some of the frozen beef had gone to school cafeterias.
“The problem is we've had virtually no regulation of agribusiness for decades when it comes to the treatment of animals,” said Paul Shapiro, senior director of the factory farm campaign for the Humane Society of the United States. “The result of that is an industry that has become harsher and harsher toward animals while, at the same time, Americans' attitudes towards farm animals have grown more sympathetic.”
There seems to be a limit to their compassion, however. A poll conducted late last year by Oklahoma State University, on behalf of the American Farm Bureau Federation, revealed this arcane tidbit: People are willing to allow up to 11,500 farm animals to suffer if the suffering of one human could be eliminated.
The same survey found that, whereas 76% of respondents said animal welfare was more important than low meat prices to them, only 24% thought the average American felt the same. The pollsters noted that such findings “point to the fact that people respond to survey questions in a manner that creates a favorable impression of themselves, rather than their true preferences. Thus, in typical survey questions, people likely overstate their true concern for farm animal welfare.”
The AAA is planning to remind retailers and the general public that there are disagreements among experts, too. For example, some veterinary professionals believe cage-free hens suffer higher rates of disease or injury because they are allowed to roam.
“There are certainly arguments out that can be made stating that welfare is not better in cage-free systems,” said Lobo.
Yet, one look at the hens in these cages, or sows pinned in gestation crates, and the public is reminded that the meat and egg industries involve animals born, raised and handled strictly for peoples' benefit.