In what some of us call the 'good old days', egg and poultry producers generated as much product as possible at the lowest price, and consumers bought it all. Later, when markets became saturated, and competitive products were offered, progressive companies created new markets by offering greater variety and this, too, resulted in mostly profitable sales. The poultrymeat industry had the great advantage that cost of production was below most other meats. In addition, progressive processing and marketing techniques enabled the industry to attract consumers with better packaging and more convenient products. And the industry just kept on expanding.
It was assumed that consumer needs were met when a product range enjoyed long-term and profitable sales, and received few, if any, complaints.
Poultrymeat safety: The first hurdle
The issue of food safety was the first cloud on the poultry industry's horizon. Already subject to inspection by government or other agencies to some degree, the first major problem encountered was that of Salmonella enteritidis contamination of intact shell eggs in the late 1980s. Consumers were rightly concerned but industry with or without government regulation, depending on the country has largely overcome this problem by imposing rigorous testing and control procedures.
Welfare becomes a hot topic
Of much greater global concern, particularly in Europe, is animal welfare and how it relates to the production and marketing of poultrymeat, eggs and indeed all foods of animal origin.
The primary difference between issues related to animal welfare and those such as food safety, is that there is no agreed upon way of measuring welfare. The term itself is subjective and has different meanings to different people. With chemical or microbial contamination, laboratory assessment can identify, and often quantify, the agent responsible. Animal welfare is not susceptible to such analysis. Although codes of practice exist in many countries, they are arbitrary. From industry's perspective they may seem too restrictive, while from the animal rights groups' perspective, they are ridiculously permissive.
How consumers receive information
In the past, advertising and public relations programmes offered information about new and improved products, price, quality and other matters. Governments occasionally provided warnings regarding product recalls or safety matters. Consumers also received advice from medical practitioners and other professionals that influenced food choice and purchase.
In the field of animal welfare, consumers tend to receive information from largely non-scientific but extremely well funded organisations including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Compassion in World Farming (CIWF). These groups have a focused agenda and in no way can be considered objective or unbiased in their approach to consumers at large.
In addition, they tend to by-pass consumers and attempt to influence retailers directly. This is particularly true in Europe where, as a result of such activity, consumers are denied choice. For example, many consumers have no real objection to buying eggs from caged hens, and demonstrate this by their purchase patterns. Yet some retailers no longer offer them for sale.
For these pressure groups, there is no middle ground and no compromise. While arguments may rage regarding the virtues of vegetarianism, most people are going to continue to consume meat, milk and eggs, and many would prefer the economy of products from the most efficient means of production.
A further challenge is the emergence of web sites developed by single-interest, extreme animal rights groups. While usually small organisations, their impact can be significant. They frequently display frightening images often obtained illegally. Pictures of older and badly maintained farms are shown and it is implied that they represent current industry standard procedures. Examples of good practices are not shown.
Representing the industry
So who speaks for the poultry and egg industries? The first formal organisation known to this author was the Ontario Farm Animal Council, (OFAC) which recently celebrated 20 years of activity. It was followed by a variety of like-minded organisations and there is now an umbrella association in the USA called the Animal Agriculture Alliance. These groups are funded by industry and attempt to present factual and balanced information. Their budgets are miniscule compared with those of the societies that harness celebrities and attract funding from the general public that responds to inaccurate and damaging publicity. OFAC regularly exhibits at the Canadian National Exhibition, an annual event that attracts several hundred thousand people. Public response to the exhibits managed by farmers who are largely trusted by the public is almost 100% positive.
Since the general public increasingly gets information from the internet, it makes sense for the poultry industry to use this medium as much as possible. FarmIssues.com is a Canadian Web site which contains a variety of information: an Issues Education Centre, photo and video galleries, and a Media Resource Centre with many useful food production statistics and facts. Virtual farm tours cover food animal species including layers, broilers, and turkeys. Consumers enjoy these sites because they reinforce what many believe: farmers in general are caring people who produce good quality, economically-priced food. Farmers are also in the front line of animal welfare. It bears repeating that good welfare is almost always accompanied by high levels of productivity.
Restoring balance and offering choice
There are many examples of producers being forced to make changes to housing and management systems without good information regarding the eventual effects on bird welfare. While it is too late for Europe to alter its policy on furnished cages, there is little firm evidence that layer welfare is improved in meaningful ways.
But prospects are good! North Americans, so far, have successfully kept conventional cages although they have reduced stocking density to satisfy consumer demands. We can only hope that efforts of organisations like OFAC, and web sites like FarmIssues.com can restore balance to the debate over animal well-being, and allow consumers to choose between intensive and economical production systems, and those with higher cost and perhaps, better perceived welfare conditions.