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How can the dairy industry communicate more effectively on animal welfare?

Candace Croney for Progressive Dairy Published on 30 April 2021

Although major investments and advancements have been made in animal welfare science that are increasingly incorporated into animal production, effectively engaging consumers and other members of the public on the subject remains a challenge.

To complicate matters, public discussions of agricultural animal welfare can be riddled with misinformation. The polarized viewpoints typically offered on animal welfare further stymie efforts to engage productively with interested parties.



Facilitating constructive dialogue on animal welfare today requires consideration of several factors. Among these are the sources of information people use to inform themselves about animal welfare; the need to engage ethics and the values that underlie people’s attitudes, beliefs and behaviours; and the continuously evolving social dynamics that are in play.

Credibility on animal welfare matters

Significant progress has been made on telling agriculture’s story. Dairy producers have been particularly successful at engaging audiences through various media, blogs, farm tours and other “edutainment” venues that appeal to children and adults, and publicly available annual reports to stakeholders. Promisingly, many groups are incorporating references to ethics, values and sustainability in connection with animal welfare in such communications.

However, the extent to which dairy producers and others affiliated with animal agriculture are considered highly credible sources of information on animal welfare is questionable. It is equally unclear whether much of the public seeks out or uses industry or academic sources of information on animal welfare. In a study done in 2014, most consumers could not identify any source for information on animal welfare – and of those who could, the highest percentage identified humane organizations such as HSUS and PETA as their sources.

While much has changed since the study was published, the reasons for these findings and the degree to which similar perceptions persist are undetermined. This matters because people’s sources of information on animal welfare likely reflect as well as inform their knowledge and attitudes, and undoubtedly influence their related purchasing and voting behaviours.

Connecting credibility to ethics

Certain credibility deficits on animal welfare are foreseeable for those involved in animal production. First, the idea that people can genuinely care about animals and yet raise and kill them for food is inherently paradoxical. While the dairy industry probably is not perceived as negatively in this regard as is the meat industry, concerns that originate here can only increase if much of the discourse positions animal welfare as a function of food production, efficiency and economics.


Communicating about welfare primarily from this perspective undoubtedly worsens skepticism that the dairy industry views and treats their animals as sentient beings with interests of their own independent of business interests. Therefore, it is important to articulate why animal welfare matters beyond economics. For the dairy industry, this means communicating about how the ethical obligations to cows and calves created by their sentience are met.

Based on our study of public perceptions of common dairy management practices shown in Figure 1, opportunities exist to address issues such as early cow-calf separation, zero-grazing operations, painful practices, social housing and humane on-farm handling of animals, not just from a scientific perspective but also with ethical concerns in mind.

Summary of respondent perceptions of dairy cattle management practices

It is important to address an often overlooked point of disconnect with consumers of dairy products and other members of the public – the difference between caring for and caring about animals. People want to know that dairy farmers do not simply provide care for their animals through husbandry duties; they are also compassionate and proactive about the experiences the animals are having.

Who is the audience for animal welfare, and what are their concerns?

Some audiences typically express higher levels of concern for animal welfare. These include women, younger consumers, those who can identify a source of information on animal welfare, pet owners and “ethical consumers” who try to purchase only products they believe derived using socially responsible practices that align with their values. For these consumers, animal welfare is a core component of sustainability and social justice issues embedded in food production. As such, welfare not only becomes a proxy indicator of important food attributes, such as safety and quality, it also is linked to core values associated with food security and access, impacts on communities, the environment, fair trade and wages, and worker health and well-being. Failure to communicate properly on animal welfare can undermine the efficacy of messaging on many of these other, interconnected areas, which is why critics of animal agriculture often connect these areas in public appeals for change or abolition of animal production.

What can the dairy industry do to communicate more effectively on animal welfare?

Effective communications on animal welfare begin with clear identification of the target audiences. Remember that “the public” is made up of diverse people with different needs and interests. Determine if you are credible with the specific audiences of interest. If not, partnering with others with greater credibility may result in better outcomes.


It is also important to be clear about why you are engaging. Is the goal to transfer information or to create two-way dialogue? What does the audience want to know, and what do they need to know? Clarifying early on here can help to avoid boring people with information that interests an industry insider but does not resonate with others. Recent research suggests there are a few simple questions many consumers have. Do the animals have a good life? Are they happy, healthy, pain-free and treated humanely? Addressing these simply and transparently may go a long way toward bridging possible credibility gaps.

It is almost never a good idea to engage in public debates about animal welfare. Debates, by definition, result in winners and losers. Winning a debate about dairy animal welfare still creates a loss if, in the process, a genuinely concerned or neutral interested stakeholder leaves the interaction feeling alienated or embarrassed. A growing body of evidence suggests that many people are so averse to contentious discussions and contradictory statements on science or other topics of social interest that they ultimately revert to confirmation bias, attending only to information that supports their existing views. Thus, whenever possible, choose deliberation over debate.

Instead of trying to win an argument, ask what people think and why. Listen for underlying concerns and guide the conversation with questions that elicit these. This creates space to identify and build on shared values, such as minimizing harm and maximizing benefits to animals, the environment and people, or supporting local communities. Research shows that people have higher trust in those whose values are similar to theirs, and a growing number of consumers specifically seek out businesses and brands who clearly articulate and embody values they share.

Finally, whenever possible, help people find quality information on animal welfare themselves. With misinformation being readily available and easily disseminated today, people need help identifying high-quality, objective sources of information. Not only can this help interested parties explore animal welfare topics on their own, it can further engender trust, as people are often more receptive to information when they discover it themselves than when it is presented by someone they do not know, or who they distrust, or perceive as having an agenda they do not support. end mark

Getty Images.

Candace Croney
  • Candace Croney

  • Purdue University Center for Animal Welfare Science
  • Email Candace Croney