With all the noise in the media over animal welfare, clandestine abuse videos from vegan groups and misleading portrayals of “factory farming,” a legitimate question to ask is whether it makes any difference. Does the negative publicity actually influence consumer behavior?

The answer, according to research at Kansas State University, appears to be “yes.” And even if direct impacts on beef demand appear minimal, we cannot become complacent in a belief that pork and poultry are taking most of the heat.

Kansas State  ag economist Glynn Tonsor, PhD., presented results of his research at last-week’s National Institute for Animal Agriculture conference in San Antonio. In their study, Kansas State researchers conducted a large keyword search of major U.S. newspapers and magazines, looking for references to animal welfare, animal handling, animal care and related terms appearing from 1982 through 2008. They found that during that time, media coverage of farm-animal welfare issues grew steadily. Animal-welfare coverage related to pork production, for example, increased by 181 percent between 1999 and 2008, while poultry coverage increased 253 percent during the same period.

The researchers then cross-referenced the volume of media coverage with fluctuations in meat demand. They found no direct impact on beef demand, but determined the coverage correlated with long-term reductions in demand for pork and poultry. They estimate that pork and poultry demand increases over the last decade would have been 2.65 percent and 5.01 percent higher, respectively if media attention in the fourth quarter of 2008 was at equal levels as the first quarter of 1999.

Beef, however, didn’t benefit from the hit on pork or poultry demand. The researchers determined that when consumers responded to negative media coverage, they shifted their purchases away from meat altogether, rather than shifting, for example, from pork to beef.

The Kansas State study was the first to analyze the effects of animal-welfare coverage on meat demand, and Tonsor says additional research is needed to assess other factors such as the relative impact of positive versus negative coverage, and the perceived credibility of individual media sources, including social media. 

Read more about the study on Kansas State ’s AgManager Web site.