David Evans, supermarket chain Morrisons, head of agriculture, said consumers had strong views about animal welfare, but few of them really understood the issues or the steps farmers were taking to produce high-welfare products.
Speaking during a debate on welfare at the Pig and Poultry event in Stoneleigh this week, Evans said the sectors had to come up with simple messages about welfare if they were going to change consumer buying habits.
“Consumer perception of welfare is very important because perception is what makes them buy certain products,” he told the delegation of more than 650 producers and industry officials.
“But they don’t really understand where food comes from so expecting them to understand welfare is a place too far. The message around it has to be very simple.”
Ed Garner of Kantar Wolrdpanel said “single issue” welfare messages such as “free-range” and “fairtrade” were the kind of simple messages consumers understood and were willing to buy into.
“Consumers want improved welfare but it has to be at a realistic price which gives them emotional satisfaction of purchasing it,” he said.
“That’s why free-range eggs sales have done so well. Even if they don’t entirely understand it, they know what free-range is about.
“But that’s also where more confusing concepts like Red Tractor and organic fall down - it creates a niche which only some understand and not everyone is willing to pay for.”
Peter Kendall, president of the English NFU, said tackling consumer perceptions about how animals were reared had to be high on livestock farmers’ agenda, particularly as retailer and government rules tended to address public concerns.
“Animal welfare is a difficult, emotive subject and we need to have an honest discussion if we are to give consumers a reason to pick British food,” he said.
“Welfare is all about perception and that’s why we need to explain to the public.
“Without that discussion, the danger is UK producers are forced to have higher standards through regulation, but retailers import cheaper foods from elsewhere.”
With an increased interest in traceability and provenance in the wake of the horsemeat scandal, now was the perfect opportunity for farmers to find ways to talk to consumers, gain their trust and boost sales of British food, he added.
Sandra Edwards, professor of agriculture at Newcastle University, agreed industry efforts to gain the trust of producers were key.
“I would like to see us go back to consumers trusting farmers to have the best knowledge about what is good for the animals,” she said.
“But that trust can only be based on the information they receive.”