PART V: BENEFITS OF WELFARE LABELLING: Labelling for the benefit of the consumer
Consumer research on voluntary food labelling commissioned by the National Consumer Council (2003) found that the consumers often felt overwhelmed by the information on food labels and found it difficult to distinguish between competing claims, endorsements or assurances. The consensus that emerged from this research was that consumers would like a short-cut to decision making based on kite marks or logos which represented a clear message with well defined claims that were transparent and trustworthy.
The Co-op survey on consumer attitudes to the ethics of the food industry (2004) with a sample size of 29,000 consumers concluded that 51% put animal welfare and animal testing in their top three priorities whilst 21% said that it was their top priority. 98% supported the humane treatment of animals and 71% said it was very important that retailers buy from producers who treated their animals well. However, other surveys have concluded that consumers place a lower emphasis on animal welfare.
The welfare provenance of all livestock products should be made available to consumers in a form that can be easily identified, readily understood and is capable of standing up to scrutiny. Consumers will differ as to the value they place on animal welfare as a quality characteristic and only a small proportion of consumers may be willing to pay a premium for high animal welfare. (Eurobarometer 2005 found that 57% of EU (25) and 65% of UK citizens state that they would pay a price premium for eggs from animal welfare friendly production systems.) The provision of information on the animal welfare provenance of a livestock product is a pre-requisite for an informed choice which satisfies the personal preferences of individuals.
A significant advantage of meeting consumer demands for enhanced welfare standards is that others in the food supply chain and the food service sector will promote better animal welfare standards in order to try to meet the demands. A large majority of people (over 85%) indicated by the response to the EU on-line consultation on the welfare of farm animals in December 2005 that animals should be treated much better in production systems. 87% of the 45,000 who participated in the survey across Europe felt that food retailers do not provide enough information on welfare conditions. 89% felt that livestock production methods should be labelled more clearly to indicate animal welfare conditions.
The pressure on retailers to offer competitive prices can often conflict with moves to improve animal welfare. Consumers are therefore typically unaware of the standards to which products are produced. If retailers were required to label clearly the welfare status of all livestock products, including those imported products that do not meet UK welfare legislation, it is possible that a significant switch by consumers to products produced to higher animal welfare standards would result.
Labelling for the benefit of farm animals
Labelling is usually understood, as discussed above, as benefiting those consumers who wish to exercise choices based on the information carried by the labels. In addition, there is a second argument in favour of labelling, namely that such labelling can be for the benefit of farm animals. This argument rests on the premise that it should not be assumed that all consumers are interested only in benefits to themselves and their immediate family and friends. For example, in considering benefits to humans some consumers choose to purchase foods under the various Fair Trade labels, even if such foods cost more or have other immediate disadvantages, on the grounds that the purchase of such foods benefits farmers and other people in developing countries.
Similarly, the growth in Freedom Food and other labels shows that some consumers choose preferentially to purchase such foods on animal welfare grounds though some would hold that there could be other advantages too (e.g. taste). Logically, a valid system of welfare labelling requires (a) that there exists significant variation between farm animals with regard to their welfare; (b) that such variation can, at least to a certain extent, be communicated meaningfully to interested consumers; (c) that there exists significant variation between consumers with regard to the extent to which such labels would affect their purchasing decisions.
Labelling for the benefit of farm animals is of particular value when its introduction increases the welfare of at least some farm animals above the minimum considered acceptable by societal consensus as laid down in law.
A separate point about labelling for the benefit of farm animals is that it serves not only to inform but also to educate and raise awareness and dispel inaccurate perceptions about the welfare of farm animals. In the longer term, therefore, such labelling may shift consumer preferences. This can feed back to farmers and others involved in the production and slaughter of farm animals, with potential benefits to the animals.
There is a strong moral argument for saying in principle that whether welfare labelling should be mandatory or voluntary should depend on which alternative would significantly benefit farm animals to the greatest extent. Given the numbers of farm animals that live and die in the UK (in excess of 900 million each year), let alone those imported here from overseas, and given the undoubted potential for labelling to improve their welfare we have little doubt that farm animals would derive significant benefit from mandatory labelling. Implications from the consumers standpoint
In a food secure, affluent society, with a highly diverse range of consumer goods, the range of choices available makes decision making difficult in the absence of salient information about food products. If animal welfare is considered to be fairly high on peoples list of priorities such information is essential for the consumer to make a more considered and informed choice about the purchase of livestock products. For those people with no animal welfare preferences the information can be ignored. In addition it gives purchasers confidence in making their selections and provides some prior assurance that the product meets their requirements.
Welfare labelling is of benefit to non-consumers of livestock products who have ethical concerns over the appropriate treatment of farm animals and who wish to feel assured that societys food supply is responsive to those concerns. To meet the consumers requirements it implies further that information must be uniform across all types of livestock products i.e. not relating just to acknowledged welfare sensitive products such as chicken or eggs. Logically, the information should be available for all products whether fresh, recognisably animal-derived or substantially processed, and for all food products with a livestock constituent. Similarly, the information should be available independent of the geographic location where the animal was farmed or its product was processed. To meet consumer needs the information must be available to the extent desired, in a clear and informative manner, and in a form that will dependably confer the assurance that the purchaser seeks.
Given the differing interests among consumers, this further implies that a range of information media must be accessible, possibly from a simple welfare assured label affixed to the product through additional explanation of what that means (leafleting, for example) to a detailed specification of the welfare standards and how they are assured.
Implications from the food suppliers standpoint
To be able to meet consumer information needs, suppliers must have in place robust and credible assurance schemes, in their supply chains, working to clearly defined animal welfare standards, providing unambiguous traceability to farm of origin, with rigid enforcement and explicit rejection procedures. Without such demonstrable rigour and transparency the information claims cannot be regarded as sufficient for purpose.
There is no presumption that there exists a single vector of animal welfare standards on which all labelling should be based. Clearly, information that the product meets minimum (legal) standards provides the baseline. Suppliers must decide whether they wish to identify enhanced standards in some contexts and how to differentiate and label their products accordingly. (The compulsory imposition of welfare labelling may, or may not, lead to suppliers standards settling uniformly on the minimum, with enhanced welfare quality branding forming a distinctly minority line.)
Detailed enquiry needs to be undertaken via consumer surveys, etc to ascertain in what form and how detailed the welfare information on the label needs to be to best meet the requirements.
One possibility is that a simple welfare tick mark (Pick the Tick in Australia and New Zealand) could be sufficient for most purposes (backed by availability of further information on request) as long as the meaning of that mark can be interpreted by the typical consumer and certification is credible. Many people do not need, or wish, to be instructed in the details of livestock farming.
Provision of welfare information will add some cost, but this is likely to be small in relation to final product price. Studies should be undertaken to test this proposition. From 1st June 2006 the health status of animals in the food chain will be available at EU abattoirs with feedback being provided to producers.
Provision of welfare information adds value to those consumers who want the information since it either affirms or enhances consumer satisfaction. However, to those for whom animal welfare characteristics do not figure in their preferences this value will be zero, although they will still pay some of the cost of its provision.
Information about animal welfare for labelling purposes should be available at farm level and all purchasers should acquire this information as an integral part of the product, which stays with it and is passed along the food marketing/processing chain. In this way, and analogously with food safety considerations, all purchasers (not just final food consuming individuals) for whom animal welfare standards are a relevant characteristic in the product they deal with can gain the information they require.
Labelling might also make it possible for producers of farm animals reared to higher welfare standards to recover some or all of their increased production costs or even increase their profits through gaining a price premium.
Several prominent national animal welfare organisations (notably RSPCA, CIWF, UFAW) are established in the UK. These organisations have an increasing influence on both consumers and retailers with regard to animal welfare matters, often through the use of targeted campaigns on particular issues or the publication of league tables (e.g. CIWFs Supermarkets and Farm Animal Welfare Raising the Standard 2006 and previously). In the UK, consumer perceptions about animal welfare now constitutes an aspect of competition between the major retailers with an increasing number projecting themselves as welfare friendly to gain a marketing edge.
It is clear the major retailers are becoming key players in the formulation and implementation of any schemes that aim to raise welfare standards. With the largest four now responsible for nearly 65% of meat sales in the UK it is increasingly them and not the farmers whom consumers are seeing as being responsible for current animal welfare standards and potential future improvements.
Implications for trade in animal products
Concerns among producers concerning level playing fields have led to the view that the labelling of products according to their background welfare provenance could distort fair and efficient inter-country trade. The logic of this view as compared to its political force is untenable, and fails to recognise the established distinction in economic theory between trade diversion and trade distortion.
In a demand-driven global economy the purpose of trade is to better satisfy consumer demands and preferences. The act of purchasing requires essential information in order to illuminate available choice and guide product selection. Informative labelling may divert purchases from what they might otherwise have been in their uninformed state, but this is entirely appropriate and defensible if it is the expression of genuine consumer preferences based on relevant information. The distortion of trade implies affecting its pattern in an inappropriate, unjustified or arbitrary manner (such as by supporting the interests of domestic farmers against overseas farmers).
Product labelling can distort trade if it is biased, incomplete or inaccurate, so as to mislead consumer choice. In a perfect world valid labelling cannot do that. Products that meet the standards indicated by a clear welfare label can be selected on price, benefiting both the consumer and the efficient producer wherever that production is located.
The argument that animal welfare is an affluent requirement and therefore discriminates against poor countries is erroneous. It does not mean that only affluent (developed) country producers can meet the specified quality requirements of the affluent consumer. Poorer countries may well have certain inherent competitive advantages in terms of labour costs, climate, resource quality, etc. The growth of contemporary trade in Asianproduced industrial and consumer products demonstrates this point.
It is possible that labelling can discriminate by inference against non-labelled products, implying erroneously that the latter are inferior simply because their provenance is not declared. The above logic has yet to feature in discussions in the WTO (and to some extent the EU). The arbitrary prevention of information requirements being met that would benefit possibly well-off consumers, ostensibly on the grounds of protecting poor overseas producers, cannot be sustained indefinitely. The inconsistency in allowing trade conditions to be imposed to meet a societys preferences for healthy plants and animals, but not its preferences for contented animals, is stark. Like animal or plant health, animal welfare is a legitimate scientific concern which needs to be taken into account in WTO rules.
|Previous Page||Contents||Next Page|
Source: Farm Animal Welfare Council - June 2006
Crown copyright 2006