Science Weighs In: Animal Welfare Reform Is Useless

Dear Colleagues:

Those who support welfare reform are all excited. They are pointing to an article in the Journal of Agricultural Economics entitled “Impacts of Animal Well-Being and Welfare Media on Meat Demand,” and welfarists claim “Science Weighs in At Last: Campaigns for Welfarist Reforms Cause People to Buy Significantly Less Meat.”

(Note: The paper from the Journal of Agricultural Economics, which was originally available on line is no longer available and has to be accessed from a subscription to the Journal. But the working paper entitled, “Media Coverage of Animal Handling and Welfare: Influence on Meat Demand,” is available here.)

I am presently talking with colleagues trained in economics and statistics/study design to present a full reply to this study, which I think suffers from multiple methodological problems and is poorly designed. But I would suggest that even a casual review of the article indicates that the claims by welfarists are, to say the least, hyperbolic.

First off, meat consumption is increasing and not decreasing. This study does not say that welfare campaigns have resulted in any actual decrease in consumption. Rather, it says that demand, measured over an approximately ten-year period, did not increase as much as the authors would have thought if media attention on welfare issues had not increased. The authors acknowledge that this reduction in demand increase is “small, but statistically significant.”

There are many, many problems with the study. For example, the authors were not able to find the same “small” result in the case of cows. Moreover, the authors claim that “this lost demand is found to exit the meat complex rather than spillover and enhance demand of competing meats.” But they define the “meat complex” as involving cows, pigs, and poultry. The lower rate of demand increase, small as the authors acknowledge it is, may have shifted to many of the other animal products that are not part of the “meat complex” as defined. The authors also make clear that there are problems linking the results they found to animal welfare concerns.

In short: animal consumption is increasing but it did not increase as much with respect to pigs and chickens and that might have been due to animal welfare concerns but it might not have had anything to do with animal welfare concerns, and any failure of demand increase may very well reflect a shift to fish, eggs, dairy products, and prepared meat foods.

And welfarists are excited about this?

In the past ten years, welfare organizations have spent billions of dollars in promoting welfare campaigns. Putting aside the methodological problems with this study, if this is the best that welfarists can show, then I would agree that science has, indeed, weighed in: animal welfare reform is useless and completely cost-ineffective.

I will post further information about a more formal reply as things shape up.

If you are not vegan, go vegan. It’s easy; it’s better for your health and for the planet. But, most important, it’s the morally right thing to do. You will never do anything else in your life as easy and satisfying.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
©2011 Gary L. Francione

Postscript added August 1, 2013

After my post in March 2011, my interest in doing a formal reply diminished in part because the study seemed to be so obviously flawed–and useless for the purpose that welfarists promoted it when it first came out–that it seemed a complete waste of time. In addition, my statistics expert was otherwise occupied at the time. So it fell off my radar screen.

However, when I spoke at the “Animal Rights 2013 National Conference” several weeks ago, I heard people from Farm Sanctuary and the Humane League remarkably claim that this study proved that “billions” of animals had been saved by welfare reforms. That’s astonishing and, at best, just silly.

It is still not clear to me that this study merits any formal response given the many other more worthwhile projects that need to be done. And, frankly, people who want to believe the “happy” exploitation propaganda fed to them by the new welfarists wouldn’t be dissuaded anyway even if they could persuaded to read something that criticized the study.

The bottom line: I repeat the above synopsis of the study. The study claims that:

animal consumption is increasing but it did not increase as much with respect to pigs and chickens and that might have been due to animal welfare concerns but it might not have had anything to do with animal welfare concerns, and any failure of demand increase may very well reflect a shift to fish, eggs, dairy products, and prepared meat foods.

In other words, the not-as-rapidly-as-expected increase in the consumption of pigs and chicken (but not beef despite there being lots of campaigns that focused on the welfare of cows) may be related to animal welfare campaigns. But it may also have been related to the weather, health concerns, economic concerns, or it may well have been related to the advocacy of those who maintain that veganism is the moral baseline and had nothing to do with welfare reform campaigns, or it may have been related to any number of other things having nothing to do with welfare campaigns.

In short, this study, and however much it costs to buy a Starbucks soy latte, will get you a Starbucks soy latte. If you think that it proves that animal welfare campaigns cause or incline people to go vegan, that is because you want to believe that, not because this study supports that belief.