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Consumers need to trust industry

A new culture of care is emerging around farm animal welfare that demands fresh thinking, partnerships, expectations and strategies for the livestock industry to define a successful future. And it’s coming fast, said speakers at the Livestock Care Conference hosted by Alberta Farm Animal Care (AFAC) last month in Red Deer.

“We’re in a completely different environment today,” says Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, a major U.S.-based initiative spanning the broad food industry. “The world is changing and our ‘social licence’ to control how we operate is at stake. We need to build public trust to consistently earn and maintain that licence, to define a future we can compete and succeed in.”

Science and standards alone are not the answer, says Arnot.

“In agriculture, we’re good at science and we think if the science is on our side people will come around to our side of the argument. But our stakeholders need more than that — they need to know we share their values and are committed to doing what is right. We’ve had the communications equation exactly backward.”

Research by the centre and its partners shows perceptions of shared values and confidence are three to five times more important than demonstrating competence. “It keeps coming back to values,” Arnot says. “That’s where we need to connect with people. It’s not just about polishing our image. It’s an issue of trust that requires fundamentally different strategies. We need to be integrated in our thinking not only as a supply chain but with the values and expectations of our customers.”

Where is it from?

Customers increasingly want to know more about how their food is produced and desire products that make them feel good about their purchases, says agricultural economist Glynn Tonsor of Kansas State University. If that relationship is thrown off by questions of trust or confidence the economic implications can be dramatic. “Animal welfare is increasingly a focus and it’s now in the conversation on trade. We’re seeing more and more examples where a welfare issue is creating challenges for industry, from state ballot initiatives in the U.S targeting specific practices to iconic global brands such as McDonald’s and Wal-Mart facing pressure and driving changes.”

Often the most damaging developments are high-profile media issues that damage food brands and industry sectors, he says. Research by Tonsor and others shows increasing consumer awareness and scrutiny of welfare practices often have significant impact on meat demand.

“One of the emerging areas being considered now is labelling of animal welfare attributes on retail products, including potential mandatory approaches,” says Tonsor. Much work is needed before mandatory labelling discussions go further, he says. “It’s an area we need to follow closely. Clearly it has the potential to strongly influence the economic implications of various animal welfare approaches.”

HSUS partnership

This new world demands new approaches, says Gene Gregory, president of United Egg Producers, an organization that has taken the bold step of directly negotiating and partnering with the Humane Society of the United States. “It’s about having a measure of control in your future, rather than having it dictated for you,” he says. “Through this approach we were able to define terms we could live with that would allow our industry to continue to operate. We faced a lot of criticism but in the end we got a better deal than we would have otherwise, including consistency of requirements across states that was critical to avoiding costly or unworkable models.”

Having some control over the pace of change is essential for industry to manage new expectations, echoed scientist Herman Vermeer of the Netherlands, who shared his experience and insight from the EU swine gestation stall phase-out.

“With science we can solve problems. But often as in the case here the debate is an emotional one. We have made adjustments but it has not been easy for the pig farmers.”

While public perception is increasingly the major factor driving change, industry can help navigate by keeping on top of the consumer mindset and strengthening that relationship, says consumer research consultant Theresa Dietrich. “People increasingly want to have a closer connection to their food. They want to know where it’s coming from and to feel good about what they’re eating. What does that mean? One thing clear is the relationship between animal agriculture and the consumer needs to be an authentic relationship — that ‘authenticity’ word is really trending in what matters to consumers today.”

Keep in mind activists are one end of the spectrum and don’t reflect the general consumer, advises Dietrich. “By focusing on the consumer relationship, there is an opportunity to build confidence and have a positive discussion of welfare as it continues to get more interest and profile.”

Another key opportunity for industry is the progress, innovation and relationship building that is driven every day by individual producers and industry representatives on the front line. The Livestock Care Conference showcased several local examples in two sessions — one on “Progressive industry leaders” and another featuring the presentation of AFAC Awards of Distinction. †

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