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Understanding Consumer Support for a Gestation Crate Ban

by 5m Editor
30 April 2009, at 12:00am

A survey of consumers was conducted aimed to give the pig industry a greater understanding of their opinions on a possible future ban on gestation crates for sows. Dr Glynn Tonsor of the Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics at Michigan State University summarised some of the findings in the latest issue of MSU Pork Quarterly (volume 13, number 4).

Consumers are increasingly interested in how animals are handled, transported and cared for. This was recently reaffirmed by the passing of Proposition 2 in California, which prohibits a range of production practices that have traditionally been accepted. Passing of this initiative follows related ballots being passed in Florida (2002) and Arizona (2006), all three of which will prohibit the future use of gestation crates (also known as stalls).

This article highlights some recent findings from a national survey (completed in June 2008) that Drs Glynn Tonsor and Christopher Wolf at Michigan State University conducted regarding US resident support for gestation crate bans. In particular, they sought to examine how residents in other US states may respond to similar ballot initiatives and to better understand the characteristics of most supportive residents.

The core question respondents were presented was:
As of April 29, 2008 three states have passed either ballot initiatives (AZ and FL) or state legislature (OR) that will ban the use of gestation crates by swine operations in their respective states at different points in the future. Residents in California will vote later this year on a similar ballot initiative. Suppose the next time you go to vote, there is a similar referendum on the ballot. If the referendum passes, all pork producers in your state of residence will be prohibited from using gestation crates in their operations. Please answer as if you were actually voting on a real referendum. Would you vote FOR or AGAINST the ban?

Nearly 70 per cent (69.2 per cent) of respondents nationally indicated they would vote for a referendum prohibiting use of gestation crates in their state of residence. For sake of comparison, it is instructive to note this support exceeds the 55-45 per cent margin experienced in Florida in November 2002. Perhaps surprisingly, respondent demographics (including age, gender, income and education) as well as the level of pork production in the state (including indicators of USDA-NASS production and the proportion of state economic activity tied to livestock production) had no significant impact on the probability of a participant responding for or against. However, residents who associate gestation crate use with lower food safety, poorer pork quality or larger farm size are significantly more likely to indicate support for a gestation crate ban in their state.

"The first or most heard voice in the gestation crate debate may set the adjustment time table. As such, the costs of not actively participating or sending mixed signals in the debate may be substantial."

Finding consumer perceptions to be predominantly more influential than typically evaluated socio-economic characteristics is important.

Consumer perceptions being unobservable, complicates decision-making of both industry and consumer groups with vested interests. Both broad entities may struggle to correctly identify specific individuals sympathetic to their cause. Moreover, researchers and policy makers may find it difficult to properly forecast differential impacts of policy, i.e. legislatively implemented bans on production practices, on a set of consumers differentiated primarily by variations in perceptions.

The finding that consumer perceptions regarding use of gestation crates are particularly influential in supporting bans raises a pragmatic question about how sensitive support is to specifics of the ban, which may influence these perceptions. The bans passed in Florida, Arizona and California, provided producers with six to eight years to come into compliance before the legislation became effective. Accordingly, a relevant question is whether referendum support is sensitive to the number of years a producer has to come into compliance? To assess this, an additional survey question was asked, examining if stated voting behavior was sensitive to the number of years producers were allowed to make adjustments and comply with the new legislation. This assessment found respondent support for ballot initiatives impervious to the amount of adjustment time given to producers.

Consumer interest groups and swine industry decision-makers both should note that this suggests the first or most heard voice in the gestation crate debate may set the adjustment time table. As such, the costs of not actively participating or sending mixed signals in the debate may be substantial. Moreover, this finding suggests the swine industry may have an opportunity to actively pursue a longer implementation time table. This in turn, may provide the industry with both more flexibility in adopting their practices and more time in better identifying the optimal response.

April 2009