Pro-dairy efforts may create unrealistic expectations


Capital Press

Videos about dairy farms can influence consumer views of the industry, but they may not be as effective at affecting their buying habits.

An economic study found that videos produced by animal rights advocates and industry organizations changed consumer opinions about how dairy farms treat their livestock.

"Perceptions can be moved in both directions," said Chris Wolf, an agricultural economist at Michigan State University and co-author of the study.

However, the videos didn't measurably shift their "willingness to pay" for milk attributes, like cow access to pasture, the study found.

It is possible that consumers are more likely to express their concern by supporting legislation that restricts farm practices, Wolf said.

Other research has indicated consumers may not recognize that stricter production regulations would likely increase the cost of food, he said.

"People don't have context to understand agriculture," he said.

Consumers' "voting behavior may not be fully reflected in retail purchasing behavior," the study said.

For the dairy industry, that would suggest a "net economic welfare loss" if they're unable to obtain additional money for more expensive production practices, the study said.

Consumer expectations may drive them to act differently at the ballot box than at the cash register, said Lindsay Rajt, associate director for campaigns and outreach for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

The livestock industry perpetuates the view that animals are allowed to freely roam farmland and enjoy other amenities, so people don't think they should pay a premium for such practices, she said.

"We're led to believe the animals already have these things," Rajt said.

The study examined consumer views before and after watching videos from PETA and two industry groups. Following is a brief summary of the findings:

* The California Milk Advisory Board, which promotes dairy products, produced a "Happy Cows" video depicting cows in idyllic settings.

After watching it, consumers believed cows were more likely to be well cared for and given access to pasture.

Consumers also believed fewer cows were treated with hormones after watching this video.

* PETA, which advocates for animal rights, released an "Unhappy Cows" video featuring dirty and lame dairy cattle in undesirable conditions.

The ratio of cows believed to be well cared for and given access to pasture dropped after consumers watched the film. Participants also thought cows were more likely to be treated with growth hormones.

* The Center for Food Integrity, an industry group aimed at educating consumers, used the example of a family dairy operation to explain farm practices.

Consumers' perception of cow well-being was boosted by the film, while the proportion of cows thought to be treated with growth hormones fell. The ratio of cattle believed to have pasture access was slightly lower after consumers watched the video.

Survey participants were questioned about "willingness to pay" premiums for production practices after these videos, but none of the short films was found to trigger a price response.

"We found that perceptions were sensitive to video information, while stated demand for particular milk attributes was not," the study said.

Even so, other research has shown that videos of abuse at a slaughterhouse released several years ago negatively impacted meat consumption, Wolf said.

The public may also react differently to images broadcast by a news organization than to a video produced by PETA, he said. "They're seen by many as a fringe group."

Within the agriculture industry, consumer education is seen as an important way to dispel misperceptions, Wolf said.

However, videos like "Happy Cows" seem to tacitly recognize that consumers prefer to see dairy cattle on pasture, he said.

The study indicates the video bolstered an image that the industry may consider unrealistic, Wolf said.

"Are you helping yourself or hurting yourself in the long run?" he said. "You have to be careful about reinforcing a message you don't want out there."

A spokesperson for the California Milk Advisory Board said the organization would not comment on the study because it was not directly involved.

The Center for Food Integrity's video aimed to show consumers the reality of modern farming while building trust in farmers' values, said Terry Fleck, executive director of the group.

"We are not shying away at all from modern food production methods," he said.

Most consumers want to be reassured they can trust farmers and feel good about eating milk, eggs and meat, Fleck said. "They don't want to feel guilty about that."

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