July 6, 2018

What's the story behind that ribeye on your plate?

Research shows need for meatier conversations between ranchers and urban customers

Before adding a steak or a carton of eggs to their shopping carts, more people — especially if they’re millennials — are considering the welfare of the farm animals that produce the food.

Compared to a generation ago, a trip to the grocery store comes with a load more questions, but not necessarily the right answers. "What consumers don’t know about food animal production and animal welfare is almost everything," says Dr. Michael von Massow, PhD, an associate professor in the Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics department at the University of Guelph. "Only 25 per cent of Canadians can answer correctly that a cow has to have a calf before she gives milk. When we ask people, they admit their knowledge of animal production is pretty limited."

von Massow, who has completed a survey of Canadian consumers, talked about the results at the recent International Symposium on Beef Cattle Welfare, hosted by the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM).

Research by Michael von Massow from the University of Guelph shows consumers don't know much about food animal production and animal welfare.

Research by Michael von Massow shows consumers don't know much about food animal production.

Michael von Massow

Antibiotics – good or bad?

His survey found almost 40 per cent of people think antibiotics are bad for animals and many see beef marketed as ‘raised without antibiotics’ as better. But, von Massow says, it’s not that simple. While he agrees the industry can reduce its antibiotic usage, there is still a medical need. "We need to treat animals that are sick," he says. "We have a responsibility to do that." However, beef can’t be sold for food unless all traces of antibiotics are gone.

"Because we live in a short-sound-bite, short-clip world it’s difficult to get correct information across," says Dr. Ed Pajor, PhD, Anderson-Chisholm Chair in Animal Care and Welfare at UCVM, and an organizer of the symposium and UCVM’s Beef Cattle Conference.

We have to be transparent about how animals are treated and some of the real challenges says Ed Pajor.

We have to be transparent about how animals are treated and some of the real challenges says Pajor.

Jager & Kokemor

We need to talk

Both researchers believe the beef cattle industry needs to start more conversations with consumers and listen to their concerns. "Consumers are going to ask questions, activists and others are going to answer those questions," says von Massow. "The beef industry has a profoundly good story to tell and I think we need to have that conversation with people."

Consumers will play an increasingly important role in driving animal welfare standards but the challenge is that they may form their views without knowing the implications for livestock. “If consumers don’t understand the basics of how farm animals are raised, it’s going to be problematic having a more nuanced discussion about antibiotics or other issues,” says von Massow.

Ranchers care about their animals and they support recent improvements in animal welfare, such as managing pain associated with castration, difficult births and dehorning. But that kind of information doesn’t always reach consumers. “We have to be transparent about how animals are treated and some of the real challenges," says Pajor. "I think sometimes we’re afraid to talk about the reality of how food is produced or how animals need to be looked after because we’re afraid of what the public will think. Being open and honest about what happens on farms is an important step."