Animal welfare and food safety - is there a link? Part 3

By Guest Author on 19 September 2016

Part 3: Happy animals and food safety: what the consumer thinks matters regardless of the science

There is an ongoing debate about the “organic” or “country-reared” animals. This series looks at research conducted on consumer perceptions and how this correlates to food safety.

Consumer Perceptions

Perceptions of food safety are just as important as actual safety, insofar as driving consumer choice and retail sales. Food producers face a daunting challenge. Not only must they raise live animals that are naturally covered with bacteria, viruses and prions, and then transform the animal products into safe foods, producers must convince the public that the food is safe. Their success is already astonishing if not publicly acknowledged—for every 39 million Americans, only 1 will die of a food-related illness, and he or she is typically very old, very young or has a compromised immune system.[28] However, food activists will go to great lengths to convince the public their food is unsafe, so livestock industries must not only battle bacteria and germs but sensationalized information as well.

Despite developments in traceability systems, it is often impossible to precisely determine what actually causes a food to become contaminated. The technology exists to trace meat back to the farm using meat’s DNA,[29] but even then it is difficult to determine exactly what caused the contamination in the first place, or how the pathogen evaded the myriad precautions employed at modern slaughtering facilities. This, however, does not let the farmer off the hook.

When Food, Inc. told the true story of a young boy who died from infection with Escherichia coli O157:H7, the documentarians blamed the illness on the poor conditions in which the cattle were raised and on the feeding of corn instead of grass. The filmmakers knew viewers would disapprove of the cattle being “ankle-deep in their manure, all day,” and thus the film gave the impression that cattle in feedlots are sad, and that sadness translates to human death. Other people have died from E. coli infection, but their deaths were not sensationalized by documentaries. Three people died from contaminated organic spinach in 2006. The bacterium could have been carried by the wind or water from a nearby farm to where the spinach was growing, but it could also have been the cattle manure used as fertilizer.[30]

There was no documentary exploiting the three deaths in an effort to “expose” the dangers of organic farming. Nor do food activists criticize those who oppose irradiation—perhaps the most effective method of killing pathogens. Why the double standard? We believe much of it has to do with activist and consumer perceptions. Because livestock industries use large-scale, factory-like methods of production, and because the processing and distribution stage are dominated by large corporations, food activists believe these corporations are motivated largely by greed for immediate profits, even at the expensive of consumer health.

While many readers of this article will rightly balk at this caricature of meat production industries, it must be recognized that this is the view subtly expressed by food documentaries such as Food, Inc., Fresh or Forks Over Knives. As a result, in this sensationalistic atmosphere, the livestock industry is likely to be deemed guilty in every outbreak of foodborne illness until proven innocent. The apparent anti-industry bias also means that illness traceable to organic or local food producers will probably be chalked up to an innocent mistake.

The cattle industry’s past mistake in feeding rendered carcasses to cattle continues to haunt it, allowing documentaries like Fresh to use this example as proof that “factory farmers” will cut every corner and do anything to animals that increases short-run profits. Many “so-called” experts once thought this feeding practice to be scientifically sound. It wasn’t. The result was mad cow disease, and subsequent scientific “experts” since then have been understandably viewed with greater skepticism. If farmers had abstained from using a feed that they knew most people would find repugnant—and about which there was still some scientific doubt—the reputation of livestock industries might not have been tarnished.

The public knows little about livestock agriculture and so will infer the integrity of an industry from a farm’s appearance, in addition to what they read on Grist or see on Real Time with Bill Maher. If a farmer prevents a sow from turning around because it saves money, will the farmer also cut corners on food safety to save money? If a farmer crams a hen into a small cage with four other hens to boost production, would he be unwilling to lower output by removing sick hens from the food production channel? If organic farmers are not held accountable for the foodborne illness they cause simply because they are trying to raise ethical food, livestock producers will be held accountable for the illness they do and do not cause because, in the public’s perception, they seem to be acting unethically toward hens and hogs.

In a telephone survey we conducted with the American Farm Bureau Federation, 78 percent of Americans agreed with the statement, “Animals raised under higher standards of care will produce safer and better tasting meat.”7 There is no separation between perceived animal welfare and perceived food safety. While the first priority of producers of meat, eggs and dairy products is ensuring food is safe, in reality, safe food only has value if it is also perceived to be safe. Let there be no doubt, regardless of whether higher animal welfare creates safer food, food from happy animals will be considered safer.

In summary

In general, production systems that provide animals outdoor access have the potential to expose animals to pathogens, viruses and other parasites. In some cases, it appears that this potential is realized. However, in other cases, perhaps due to effects of lower stocking densities or better managerial competence, the risks can be alleviated or even reversed. In short, animal housing conditions are but one factor, and a far from deciding factor, affecting food safety.

However, consumers don’t always see it that way. Consumers conflate perceptions of safety with perceptions of animal welfare. They are not necessarily irrational in doing so, as care and managerial competence in one domain are likely to be correlated with meticulousness in another. Food safety is hard to observe on the farm, especially for the average consumer who doesn’t know Salmonella from Campylobacter. However, through pictures and videos, consumers can readily observe tidiness and stocking density, and the ability of animals to exhibit natural behaviors. Although these do not necessarily relate to food safety, it is not wholly unreasonable for consumers to presume that someone who cares about the one cares about the other. If we are really concerned about the volume of pathogens people actually consume, then we must also be aware of their perceptions—which drive what they put in their mouths.     


28. Coclanis, P.A. 2011. Food is much safer than you think. The Wall Street Journal. June 14, A13.
29. Felberbaum, M. 2011. New frontier in food safety: meat traceable by DNA. The Commercial Appeal May 31.
30. Chew, W.-P. 2008. Correlation of in-field survival of Escherichia coli O157:H7 with rainfall, relative humidity and soil moisture. Master’s thesis. Department of Food Science. Oklahoma State University.


Article reproduced with permission from Food Safety Magazine

Source: Food Safety Magazine

F. Bailey Norwood, Ph.D., and Jayson L. Lusk, Ph.D.

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