American consumers are showing increasing interest in the way you care for your animals. Many activist groups work to paint all of animal agriculture with a broad brush, describing conditions on “factory farms” as “deplorable.” Those activists often quickly gain the attention of the national media and isolated incidents become blown out of proportion.

For the family farmers and agribusinesses involved in food animal production, the issue has evolved beyond whether or not any animal abuse is acceptable – it’s not – to what industry stakeholders should do to combat media attention and misinformation.

Our immediate reaction is to denounce the activists with an agenda, and call them out on the misinformation they are spreading about modern food animal production. But is that the correct strategy?

Research by Kansas State University ag economist Glynn Tonsor, and Purdue ag economist Nichole Olynk, confirms that, “As a whole, media attention to animal welfare has significant, negative effects on U.S. meat demand.”

Tonsor and Olynk developed an economic model to evaluate media attention’s impact on meat demand. They determined that such attention has not directly impacted beef demand, but the model showed reduced demand for both pork and poultry. But, the economists warned that beef was not immune to animal welfare issues.

“This study found increased media attention caused a reallocation of expenditures to nonmeat food rather than reallocating expenditures across competing meat products,” Tonsor and Olynk said. “Accordingly, all three evaluated livestock and meat industries stand to lose if total meat expenditure is reduced as consumers obtain increasing amounts of media information regarding animal well-being and handling issues.”

Which lead us to ask how the livestock industries should combat unwanted media attention. Another study by Oklahoma State University ag economists suggests fighting ballot initiatives on the care and housing of food animals may produce unintended consequences.

The OSU study evaluated demand for eggs in selected California markets before and after the vote on Proposition 2, that state’s farm animal housing initiative which passed with 66 percent of the vote in 2008. The study found that demand increased for eggs from hens housed in programs that are promoted as higher in animal welfare. Such programs are cage-free or organic.

The take away message, as noted by KSU’s Glynn Tonsor in comments in a recent edition of “Connecting Livestock Producers with Economic Research” (CLPER), is that fighting ballot initiatives can add to the media attention such initiatives receive. Therefore, consumer attention to the issue is also raised, and may lead to undesirable consumer shifts in purchasing behaviors.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t combat initiative’s such as Proposition 2, or try to correct misinformation in the media when we find it. But, as Tonsor notes, there is a “cost/benefit” relationship to accepting or fighting such initiatives that would change production practices.

While economic analysis confirms media attention to animal welfare issues can harm consumer demand, there is no suggestion that ignoring ballot initiatives and media attention is the right course of action. But it is important for the livestock industries to recognize that response strategies must be well-informed and well-planned, and they must include a commitment from all livestock producers to eliminate any forms of abuse.

By Greg Henderson, Editor Drovers/Cattlenetwork