The Global Animal Partnership (GAP), Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) and Certified Humane are just a handful of animal welfare certifications on the market, and McDonald's and Tyson Foods are among the major brands with public positions on the issue.
All of this engages the 18% of U.S. consumers motivated to purchase products with animal welfare certifications and the 27% of millennials, or consumers born between 1980 and 1994, according to market intelligence firm IRI Worldwide. And given millennials represent just over half of total food retail dollars in the United States, it's worth taking note of, says Chris DuBois, senior vice president at IRI Worldwide and principal of its protein vertical.
“Not only is this important, but it's likely to grow in importance as millennials continue to take center stage,” he says.
So, what's driving animal welfare engagement?
It started with a love of pets
“One of the overriding super trends is 'pets as people',” DuBois says. This secular trend, he says, brings pets “deeper into the household” and sees people spend more than ever on these animals.
Combine this with the fact only 1% of the U.S. population are farmers, so most consumers don't understand how livestock animals are raised. He says there is an expectation livestock should be raised as pets, and consumers “struggle to find out that's not the case.”
According to IRI, 57% of U.S. consumers are motivated to purchase products by factors within “social strategy and cultural alignment,” DuBois says, which for animal products includes packaging type, whether a product is grown or produced sustainably, whether it is organic, and if it carries animal welfare claims.
“The U.S. population care greatly about how animals are raised and the conditions they're raised in,” he says, which is even clearer among younger generations — millennials and Generation Z, i.e. those born between 1995 and 2015.
“The companies getting ahead on these issues and changing their businesses and communicating all the good things they're doing every day, vocally and loudly, will prosper. What we've seen so far is really just the beginning and there's a lot more demand to come from the younger generation.”
Mintel data supports this, showing younger consumers seek out specific information when it comes to their food, particularly meat products. While one-third of U.S. red meat consumers look for meat they can trace back to origin, this rises to almost 40% for Generation Z consumers. Similarly, consumers ages 18-34 lead the charge in wanting more information on ingredient sourcing in fast casual restaurants, e.g. how animals are raised and if the produce is local. Importantly, these consumers are also more open to paying for health-halo and animal welfare claims.
What exactly do consumers care about?
Justin Sherrard, global strategist for animal protein at Rabobank, says it's fairly broad.
“I don't think consumers have a very well-developed view on what constitutes good animal welfare or what doesn't,” Sherrard says. “For consumers, the concerns are very general. If you talk about critics of industry — advocates and NGOs — then you start to get a bit more specific.”
A lot of consumers, he says, just feel “a little bit uncomfortable” about livestock farming and don't like the idea of “animals being confined” or prevented from natural behavior.
Harry Blokhuis, professor of ethology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and coordinator and chair of the collaborative Welfare Quality Network, adds: “Many consumers struggle with the 'industrial approach' in animal production — e.g. large groups, high density and barren environment — that they also link to 'un-naturalness' and the impossibility for the animals to show natural behavior.”
The finer detail of animal feed and nutrition, Blokhuis says, doesn't first come into consideration, although there is discussion around GMOs and feed additives.
“Relation to feed is more through the way animals are fed, again related to the consumers' wish regarding natural behavior,” he says.
Consumers are looking for “clean” and “natural” meat. (Pixdeluxe | iStock.com)
Hormone free, antibiotic free, free range and grass fed
Melanie Bartelme, global food analyst at Mintel, says a large part of consumer concern in the U.S. centers around animals being treated humanely, in particular, raised free from hormones and antibiotics which indirectly leads to interest in animal feed. In the U.K., most consumer interest lies in free range.
“The animal feed industry should be aware of consumers' desire for all-natural, preservative- and additive-free meat,” she says. “It makes sense that if consumers are looking for 'clean,' natural meat, they are going to want to know that careful attention has been paid to every step of the meat production process — starting with what the animals were fed.”
“Grass fed,” for example, is important for red meat consumers, she says, because it evokes an image of “happy cows allowed to roam as they wish.”
In the U.K., consumers also associate grass-fed beef as a better-for-you product, with 66% considering it more natural and 43% more nutritious, according to research from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB).
Bartelme says in the coming years a rise in blockchain, augmented reality, and other technologies will give consumers “ever more insight into the meat industry” and drive consumer expectations even higher, particularly around animal feed.
“Any information that a producer can provide to consumers will help differentiate it from other companies, and animal feed players that can offer clean, natural feed — or be able to explain why an animal is fed what it is fed — will be appealing to those producers,” she says.
Lack of consumer knowledge 'can't be underestimated'
However, DuBois reiterates that industry must be mindful most consumers know very little about livestock.
“The mere fact that 'grass fed' became such a major opportunity when almost all cattle eat grass, at least for the great majority of their lives, says a lot. The lack of knowledge can't be underestimated on the consumer side,” he says. “Too often, people in the industry assume consumers know things because the executives or marketeers have talked about it for years, but if you go back to the fact consumers take 15 to 20 seconds to pick a package of meat, they're not giving it that much thought. They have many other things going through their heads and in their lives.”
Sherrard agrees animal welfare is far from a “top of mind” issue for most consumers, rather it plays into wider health concerns.
“On the issue of antibiotics and hormones, where relevant, I think that's the way people think about feed; what goes into the animal goes into my body, and that's the connection people make.”
The majority of consumers expect livestock to be raised similarly to pets. (Somrerk Kosolwitthayanant | iStock.com)
Susie Stannard, senior consumer insight analyst at AHDB, says a more pressing opportunity for animal feed lies in telling a sustainable story.
“Beyond what consumers say directly, there is more talk on social media around the inefficiency of meat production,” she says. “To counter this, it would be great to be able to highlight how much animal feed actually comes from waste parts of crops and that land which can't support crop growth can be used to produce meat while absorbing carbon, to demonstrate that meat production is sustainable.”
EU animal advocacy organization Eurogroup for Animals agrees: “One of our main concerns regarding the animal feed industry is the provenance of the plant proteins and cereals that are fed to the animals, especially in industrial animal agriculture. We are aware that vast areas of the planet are subject to deforestation in order to provide the animal feed industry with plant proteins, for example soy, and cereal monocultures which are also water-intensive, and this will become increasingly unacceptable.”
According to DuBois, 26% of U.S. consumers are concerned about sustainability when shopping for meat products and seafood sustainability will “continue to be something extraordinarily strong.”
“There are topics that are much more important than animal welfare around the meat side but it doesn't minimize the fact that taking care of animals responsibly is important to people,” he says.
Animal welfare will gain importance, he adds, and there will be a shakeout of leading certifiers, resulting in one or two taking center stage.
“Certifications play a role across industries, not just meat; it happens for fair trade in the coffee categories or confectionery and sustainability in seafood. The certification piece is real and, as consumers look to see that across the store, it will increasingly be a source of authority and trust for consumers and something companies can invest in.”