Can we meet the grade?
Recent moves by leading food retailers remind that herd management decisions no longer begin and end at the farm gate.
The analysis is hard to argue against: as global standards of living continue to rise, most of those who make a living studying such trends agree that the consumption of meat will rise as well. This is excellent news for the pig industry and all those connected to animal agriculture. The overriding movement toward improved incomes worldwide is expected to equate to improved meat consumption in emerging and developing nations.
But there is another trend that is becoming more visible and brings with it some unique challenges: a more-informed consumer base that is no longer content to accept food at face value. The days of consumers believing that pork is pork and beef is beef are a thing of the past with impacts felt in animal agriculture first in Europe and now spreading worldwide.
The knowledge that consumers are becoming increasingly interested in how animal agriculture runs its businesses certainly presents a fresh set of considerations but if we can somehow differentiate between science-based reasonable and genuine inquiries, and demands based on inaccurate assumptions, perhaps we can partner with an informed consumer base in a positive manner. Informed and educated consumers are, in fact, what many in animal agriculture have said they prefer.
For decades, consumers had little interest in how their food got to the meat case. Several generations removed from the farm in many cases, they no longer raised their own food and were not particularly concerned with how that food got to their tables.
Educating the public
Enter today's consumer. Armed with more education — and more expectationsa trend that can be expected to continue among countries with rising household incomes — they have been pelted with media messages of animal rights most of their lives. They have seen natural and organic markets spring up with growing frequency. They have heard a multitude of messages, some scientifically based, some not. They have seen the debate over cages, grazing, and what floors animals walked on. They have seen animal disease outbreaks that have affected humans and livestock. They have seen feed and food recalls by the dozens. But through these developments, they have also grown an interest in not only what goes onto the dinner table, but also what is being fed to meat-producing animals. It is fairly safe to think that as more nations raise their meat consumption, this interest in animal welfare will also increase.
Animal welfare trends
In many ways, animal agriculture is being asked to respond to consumer demands in ways it has never been asked to before. Large food retailers have begun making greater demands on their suppliers that have found their way all the way down the food chain. Some of these efforts are broad in input and scientifically based. Others are driven by various market motives and emotions.
One of the latest representations of where we can expect consumer trends to go was the recent announcement by Whole Foods Market that it is launching a system in which meat sold at the chain will receive a 1-to-5 rating, based on animal welfare protocols audited by a third party. The chain claims it is the first such graded system anywhere for meats.
Launched in the USA,in 1980, Whole Foods Market has grown into the world's leader in natural and organic foods with more than 270 stores in North America and the United Kingdom. Whole Foods Market's spokesperson said that the market had long required what it sees as basic animal welfare stipulations in what it sold: no antibiotics or hormones. But she said the chain wanted to do more. Roll out of the new system followed a five-year development process during which the company said it invited participation from animal-welfare groups, scientists and producers in order to develop standards across all meat-animal species. The ratings directly relate to how animals are fed and housed.
Certainly this company does not represent all super markets and its consumers are not representative of all consumers. But I also don't believe animal agriculture is served by ignoring or underestimating the impact that a rating system based on animal welfare could have on the industry, whether or not the process utilised is one we could agree upon. One of the keys for the pig industry will be to analyse the economics of welfare choices in our herd management practices.
Anticipation of increases in the consumption of meat around the world brings optimism for the future of the pig industry amid uneasiness over global food security. But with this increased consumption we can also expect an increased interest in animal welfare, some of it scientifically based, some not. An increasingly aware consumer base is not going to be ignored without repercussions in the marketplace. Now that we've begun to identify these new demands, it's time to assess their impact.