Keith Nunes
KANSAS CITY— Evolving consumer views of animal welfare issues are having an increasingly profound effect on livestock production in the United States. Just as the clean label and free-from phenomena have swept other segments of the food market and influenced consumer choices, a similar trend is altering how consumers see the desirability of the dairy products, eggs, meat and poultry products they buy.

The trend is being driven by numerous issues. The emergence of antibiotic resistance, for example, and steps being taken across the animal agriculture chain to eliminate or reduce the use of antibiotics critical to human health is one such issue. Another, perhaps more significant matter, is legislation related to the size of species-specific confinement pens and how it is challenging various aspects of the industry.

Demand for humanely raised meat and poultry products is part of changing consumer perceptions of healthy eating. Preferences have shifted from so-called diet foods to products that are free of gluten, artificial or bioengineered ingredients, antibiotics and growth hormones.

The manifestation of the trend may be seen in the proliferation of company and industry-wide declarations of intent to offer products that meet the demand. Many of the efforts do not simply involve the replacement of some ingredients with others, but may require the wholesale restructuring of certain portions of the supply chain.

Poultry production provides a strong example. In early 2016, a rush of food companies, retailers and food service operators issued commitments to source eggs only from birds raised in cages that offer greater space for movement. The changes are definitely forcing egg producers to invest significant capital sums to reconfigure operations in order to meet their customer’s commitments.

The national shift from traditional egg production practices to those perceived as “cage free” was spawned by legislation that passed in California requiring eggs sold in the state meet a specific definition. This past November, Massachusetts passed legislation regulating how chickens, pigs and veal calves are housed.

A report from the market research company Packaged Facts identified several ways for companies to capitalize on the trend. The research company said animal-welfare related practices are essential to staying competitive as more companies demonstrate engagement in such issues through labeling, advertising and promotion.

In addition, the research group said companies should leverage inherent links between animal welfare and the healthfulness and sustainability of meat, poultry and dairy products. Packaged Facts research shows 53% of U.S. adults said they believe humanely raised meat and poultry products are healthier.

If the clean label and free-from trends are any kind of guide, the demand for improved animal welfare practices as a point of concern among consumers and differentiation among competitors will continue to expand. Such growth may further alter and challenge animal agriculture producers throughout the country.