Consumer Preferences for Animal Welfare Attributes: The Case of Gestation Crates

Article excerpt

Animal welfare concerns are having dramatic impacts on food and livestock markets. Here we examine consumer preferences for pork products with a focus on use of gestation crates. We examine underlying consumer valuations of pork attributes while considering preference heterogeneity as well as voluntary and legislative alternatives in producing gestation crate-free pork. Our results suggest that prohibiting swine producers from using gestation crates fails to improve consumer welfare in the presence of a labeling scheme documenting voluntary disadoption of gestation crates. Consumers are found to implicitly associate animal welfare attributes with smaller farms. Preference heterogeneity drives notably diverse consumer welfare impacts when pork produced with use of gestation crates is no longer available for consumption.

Key Words: animal welfare, consumer welfare, economics of legislation, gestation crates, pork, swine, voluntary labeling, willingness to pay

JEL Classifications: Q11, Q13, Q18

There is increasing consumer interest in the production practices used in modern food production. Examples currently circulating throughout the meat industry include consumer interest to know whether and how antibiotics or growth hormones were used, whether the product was produced "locally" or "on family farms," and whether animals were handled in an "animal friendly manner." Although we are unaware of current standardized definitions of "animal friendly," "proper animal welfare," or related terms, throughout this article such phrases are used consistent with ongoing public discussions on the subject of how production practices impact the livelihood of farm animals. Given this lack of concrete definitions and the inherent range of public perceptions and knowledge on farm animal livelihoods, it is hardly surprising that opinions vary regarding acceptability of current production practices.

A particular issue facing the U.S. swine industry is the possible elimination of production practices deemed by some consumers to be animal unfriendly. In particular, consumer pressure is mounting for the industry to no longer use gestation crates (also known as gestation stalls). Gestation crates are metal crates that house female breeding stock in individually confined areas during an animal's four-month pregnancy. Pork producer organizations suggest that use of these crates may facilitate more efficient pork production resulting in lower prices for consumers. The use of these crates is deemed as cruel to the animal by some consumer groups as the crates limit animal mobility. This consumer group perception has resulted in ballot initiatives having been passed by residents of Florida and Arizona that will ban the use of gestation crates in their state (Videras, 2006). In November 2008, California residents passed a similar ballot initiative. Oregon was the first state to ban gestation crates using legislature. In addition to these state-specific changes, food retailers (i.e., McDonald's and Burger King) have responded by sourcing an expanding share of their food from animal wel fare friendly-meaning crate free - sources (Martin, 2007).

Not surprisingly, this growing consumer interest in more knowledge of production practices has led to an increase in research on the underlying perceptions and preferences of consumers, as well as the economic impact and viability of making corresponding adjustments (Darby et al., 2008; Lusk, Norwood, and Pruitt, 2006; Nilsson, Foster, and Lusk, 2006). However, as noted by Norwood, Lusk, and Prickett (2007), the views of consumers in 'the animal welfare debate* are basically absent. In particular, a question yet to be addressed is whether these legislative changes are welfare enhancing for the representative consumer. Moreover, the distribution of consumer welfare effects is relevant. Economic welfare evaluation is particularly warranted as the desires of a population subset (e.g. …