Sabine Hartmann, D.V.M., director of animal-friendly product management,  Vier Pfoten International (Four Paws International) correctly told the audience at EuroTier’s Poultry Forum in Hanover, Germany, that the price for food has risen at less than the rate of inflation. She said that the relative improvement in the affordability of food has actually been a bad thing.

Low prices for food don’t leave enough money for the farmers to raise the animals in a better manner, according to Hartmann. With the exception of the recent economic downturns and increasing use of crops to make biofuels, consumers are spending a lower percentage of their income on food than before. Most would say this is a good thing, but she seems to think not.

Hartmann said that the efficiency gains of agriculture impose “stress” on farmers and the animals. She doesn’t like the “high-performance culture.” This culture has led to the killing of male chicks of layer strains, because the genetics of broilers and layers are so different. She said that consumers don’t understand how agriculture has changed. Because of this, she said it is difficult for consumers to know which animal products offer a better lifestyle for the animals used to produce them.

Hartmann said that consumers can associate a price and number of calories with an animal product, but not the welfare condition of the animals raised to produce them. She said that a labeling and certification system for animal products would allow consumers to eat animal products without feeling guilty about it. Her organization wants to launch an international animal welfare label which is reliable and trustworthy.

Up to this point, I only disagree with the concept of food being too cheap. I spent several years serving on the board of a food bank, and there are people in all countries who, for one reason or another, can’t afford to eat properly. Cost of food plays a role in this. But, if we agree to disagree on how “cheap” food should be, what could be wrong with setting some standards, auditing production, and clearly labeling product? Then it is up to consumers to decide what they are willing to pay for, right?

Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. Remember that Hartmann mentioned a relationship between efficiency and stress; here is where I have to really disagree.

Vier Pfoten’s Sehr Gut (very well) program for broilers has requirements for antibiotic-free production, lots of space for the birds, “toys” (like straw bales and other distractions in the barn), and access to covered porches called “cooling rooms.” Hartmann lost me when she mentioned the requirement that birds be from slow-growing strains that can gain a maximum of 42 grams per day and be at least 56 days of age at market. I have no problem if someone wants to pay for a chicken that grows more slowly, or has straw bales to play with or that spends its afternoons sleeping in a pen attached to the barn. Just don’t tell consumers that a bird has better welfare because it grows more slowly.

There is a small market for meat from strains of birds that grow more slowly and are inherently less efficient at converting feed to meat. I think it is great that producers are stepping forward to supply consumers that want this meat, but it isn’t correct to say the welfare of these birds is better just because they grow more slowly.