Results of a European public survey looking at intensive animal production systems and production diseases

The public are an important stakeholder at the end of the food chain. Yet they are largely unfamiliar with how the food they eat is produced, including products from modern animal production systems. Previous research has demonstrated that the public have concerns in relation to farm animal welfare. PROHEALTH identified that there is little research into attitudes towards production diseases, and specifically the interventions to control these diseases. To establish the acceptance and long term use of animal production systems and disease mitigation strategies, it is important to recognise how the public think about them. Last spring, the PROHEALTH team conducted a survey across five European countries (Finland, Germany, Poland, Spain and the UK) to explore this further.

The public have little knowledge of modern farming

The majority of respondents in all countries were unfamiliar with farming practices, with most respondents also either unsure, or disagreeing, that they purchased foods produced from intensive animal production systems. This could be due to respondents being unclear as to how the food they purchase has been produced. This highlights a disconnection between consumers and modern agriculture.

The public have some concerns over intensive production systems

Several benefits of intensive production systems were acknowledged by the public, mainly in relation to resource and cost efficiency. However, respondents frequently viewed these systems also unfavourably, especially in relation to increased animal stress, increased risks of animal diseases and it being thought of as an unnatural production system. When asked to rate their agreement to how concerned they were about various aspects of intensive animal production, the most frequently mentioned concerns were related to whether minimum welfare standards were being achieved, antibiotic use leading to antibiotic resistance, antibiotic residues and food safety. Specific concerns were raised about prophylactic antibiotic usage, despite that the survey emphasised that this is banned within the EU.

The public’s concerns are reflected in the disease mitigation strategies they prefer

Respondents were asked to rate the acceptability of ways to mitigate diseases. The least preferred interventions (see Table 1) reflect the above concerns, with these interventions involving use of medicines, vaccination, genetic selection and food supplements, although most of these received scores equating to ‘neither unacceptable or acceptable’. Doing nothing and the preventative use of veterinary drugs, were the two statements to be consistently unacceptable across all countries. The most preferred interventions involved changes to housing design, enhanced hygiene, reducing stocking densities and providing enrichment materials. These could generally be perceived as more natural and less invasive interventions than the other interventions proposed.

The public prefer proactive strategies

The results of the survey further emphasise the need for effective communication and assurance regarding the regulations and measures to ensure the safety of the animal products. The results suggest that antibiotic usage and food safety are inextricably linked in the minds of consumers. Existing communication has predominantly been in relation to disease epidemics or crises and therefore has been more reactive in nature, such as with as foot and mouth disease or avian influenza. In light of this, individuals may relate part of their concerns to the epidemic disease outbreaks that have gained more attention in the media compared to production diseases. Care should therefore be taken when communicating about production diseases to clearly differentiate them from epidemic disease. Given the wider associations of higher welfare, with product quality and safety, adopting a more proactive stance, such as presenting the more proactive management measures taken to mitigate production diseases, is therefore an important part of ensuring this. This will also help to ensure that the policies used align with societal preferences, and highlights the benefits of ongoing societal discussions in building consumer trust through transparency. Best practice examples of this that could be used include the work already being done by the UK poultry sector to reduce the amount of antimicrobials used within production systems.