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Consumer, retailers and producers concerns and requirements

The Report “Improving farm animal welfare across Europe: current initiatives and venues for future strategies” gives an overview of the main results of research carried out among consumers, retailers and producers. It tries to offer a critical evaluation of the possible contribution of the Welfare Quality® assessment system to current European initiatives for improving the welfare of farm animals.

Researchers have carefully mapped concerns, initiatives and conditions for involvement among producers, processors, retailers, and consumers in seven European countries. The general picture is one of positive interest. First of all, welfare initiatives are often associated with various types of quality assurance market schemes, whose significance, contents and organization are variable. Divisions of power and responsibility for animal welfare influences who can and is taking the initiative: producer groups, processors, big retailers, alternative suppliers, NGOs, consumers, or public authorities. All in all, the opportunities for people to take action through their consumption practices are limited in many ways, including few choices, inadequate information, and uncertainty about impacts on animal welfare.

The institutional as well as political and cultural environment is important for welfare initiatives. Three models are identified, which are linked to regulatory policies and the organization of supply chains:
• the market model (especially in the UK and the Netherlands);
• the welfare-state model (especially in Norway and Sweden); and
• the terroir model (more in France and Italy).
These models have considerable influence on information communicated to end-consumers and on how consumers are expected and able to act.
Market-based welfare standards are more developed in countries where the market model dominates. Here standards are used for market differentiation through labelling initiatives as well as branding strategies and corporate social responsibility policies. Animal welfare is visible in the market, and a niche of ‘ethical products’ has been developed.
In countries where the welfare-state model dominates, welfare standards are used mostly for public policies or private policies that consider animal welfare a non-competitive issue. Animal welfare is less visible in the market but is part of the general political agenda. Initiatives are more diffuse in countries where the terroir model dominates. Welfare standards are less developed and, when existing, tend to be part of (localized) quality strategies of producer groups. The ‘ethical market’ is less developed and the welfare status of animal products is more opaque.

Our studies have identified several challenges:
1. Accountability and transparency are crucial. The Welfare Quality® assessment tool may help to improve conditions, but its successful implementation will depend also on an organizational environment that supports such values.
2. Welfare schemes and product labelling refer to (some degree of) integration in supply chains. The integration of European food supply chains is highly variable, something that needs to be considered in order to ensure applicability of the WQ standardized assessment system.
3. Assurance schemes are generally associated with distribution systems favouring product differentiation based on quality (as opposed to price). There are strong tendencies of growth in discount retailing. Moreover, graded standards of animal welfare are not always appreciated, many focus instead on raising minimum standards.
4. The idea of good animal welfare is malleable. There is a wide range of perceptions and expectations. Generally, consumer opinions are influenced by their distant position from and lack of experience with modern animal production. There is a need for better information, which, in turn, can form the foundation of more active engagement.

We have learnt that the Welfare Quality® assessment tool may be relevant for a range of purposes:
- To make various existing standards comparable and accountable. Used in this way, it may contribute to strengthen initiatives already developed, by making the welfare claims more transparent and robust. This would allow for use in a variety of quality assurance programmes, associated with welfare-friendly grading and labels, CSR programmes, and more general product labels (taste, organics, etc.).
- To implement ‘civic policies’ such as rural development plans. The standard can become a very useful reference for animal welfare organizations and thus also for mobilization on welfare improvement.
- To clarify and concretize expectations about what to do, in association with European educational initiatives regarding welfare improvement on farms. While the assessment tool as such is far too technical for ordinary people, documentation and reference is crucial for building up trustworthiness, especially for the most critical consumers, who are also more active.
- With its systematic, scientific backing, the WQ assessment tool can be used for research purposes; helping to describe and compare welfare conditions, to explore causal factors, etc.
The report “Improving farm animal welfare across Europe: current initiatives and venues for future strategies” by Unni Kjærnes, Bettina Bock, Mara Miele, and Henry Buller, will be available in April 2009 as PDF on the Welfare Quality® website. A printed document will be available later this year.

Mara Miele, mieleM@cardiff.ac.uk and Unni Kjærnes, unni.kjarnes@sifo.no