Today’s U.S. retail meat consumers are increasingly interested in food animal production methods, including conditions and rearing methods used by livestock producers. Some even want to see the information printed on meat labels.

“It is important to recognize and fully appreciate the U.S. public, both in a food consumer and voting resident sense, is increasingly interested in the production practices used in food supply chains,” says Glynn Tonsor, Kansas State University agricultural economist. “The subject of conveying animal welfare information by retail meat labeling is growing and may become more prevalent going forward.”  

Tonsor cites the July 2011 agreement between the United Egg Producers and The Humane Society of the United States which calls for mandatory labeling of retail egg cartons providing information on housing and production practices.

According to a recent survey by the Center for Food Integrity, humane treatment of farm animals is seen by consumers near the bottom of commercial livestock producers’ priorities, while consumers think it should be ranked higher.  

Before implementation of animal welfare-oriented mandatory labeling policies however, Tonsor believes a thorough benefit-cost assessment is needed. “Benefit-cost studies can provide a framework for addressing these issues and highlighting unknown or uncertain aspects that most influence bottom-line conclusions regarding economic impacts of policies.”

Prior to implementation of animal welfare labeling, Tonsor believes stakeholders should know the net economic impacts throughout the meat, milk, or egg supply chains. “A benefit-cost study conducted today would provide useful context to the discussion of inherent trade-offs associated with any mandatory labeling scheme.”

Such a study could help raise awareness of the number of substantial knowledge gaps and provide guidance for future research on animal welfare labeling policies and economic impacts, according to Tonsor.

A benefit-cost study would be useful in determining the implementation costs of alternative production practices and consumer demand impacts, Tonsor says. “Decisions are best made when the majority of relevant information is available for consideration. Economic impacts of alternative labeling policies may help add valuable insight to what obviously is often a contentious subject of discussion.”

Tonsor recently completed a study describing the impact of animal welfare topics appearing in the media on meat demand by retail consumers.