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Posted June 11, 2012

Student's Paper on Animal Welfare Labeling Wins Writing Competition

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Rising third-year law student Sean Sullivan's paper, "Empowering Market Regulation of Agricultural Animal Welfare through Product Labeling," won the Bob Barker Prize in Animal Law, Ethics and Rights.

A paper written by rising third-year law student Sean Sullivan that calls for improved animal welfare product labeling has won the Bob Barker Prize in Animal Law, Ethics and Rights.

Contact: Brian McNeill

Sullivan's paper, "Empowering Market Regulation of Agricultural Animal Welfare through Product Labeling," took first place in the annual student writing contest sponsored by the University of Virginia School of Law's Animal Law Program. Sullivan recently discussed his paper with the Law School.

How would you describe your paper's central argument?

In many western countries, rising public concern about the treatment of agricultural animals is reflected in the adoption of direct regulatory standards governing the treatment of animals. The United States has taken a different path, tending to rely on a "market regulation" approach whereby consumers purchase desired welfare practices rather than enforce desired practices through laws governing producer behavior. This article argues that market regulation is failing in this country because current animal welfare labeling practices fail to clearly or credibly disclose to consumers the actual treatment of agricultural animals. As a corollary, effective market regulation of agricultural animal welfare could be empowered simply by improving current animal welfare labeling practices.

In the paper, you suggest that animal welfare labeling on food and other products could lead to improved market regulation by allowing consumers to make informed choices. Could you elaborate on why you think this labeling is needed?

To be concrete, think about consumers buying steaks in a supermarket. Cattle were slaughtered to make those steaks, and many consumers care about how the cattle were treated (access to outdoor spaces, reasonable allowance of living space, minimal pain experienced during slaughter, etc.) in a similar manner to how they care about other characteristics of their steak (attractive appearance, lack of smell, good taste, etc.). Just as some consumers will pay more for a well-marbled cut of meat, some will pay more for meat from a relatively well-treated animal. The difference between animal welfare and other product characteristics is that welfare can't actually be perceived by the consumer. In most situations, the only indication consumers get about the treatment of animals used to produce the meat is from statements on the product labels. If the labels function properly, at least some consumers will pay more for the higher animal welfare practices they prefer, and competition in the market will lead to a level of animal welfare commensurate with consumer demand. This is the "market regulation" approach to animal welfare.

What do you mean when you describe a "failure of market regulation" as it relates to consumers’ habits regarding products that emphasize animal welfare?

"Market failure" describes a market that is not achieving an optimal allocation of goods and services. In the case of animal products, a vast literature on consumer preferences has found that many (though certainly not all) consumers want agricultural animals to be treated well; these consumers are willing to pay a premium for enhanced-welfare animal products. But in contrast to the consumer preference literature, actual markets for animal products are overwhelmingly dominated by products made under minimal animal welfare standards. Given the established consumer preference for better treatment of agricultural animals, lack of enhanced-welfare animal products in stores is indicative of a market failure. The current allocation of animal welfare is sub-optimal because it is failing to provide consumers with the enhanced-welfare animal products that at least some of them demand.

Why do you think consumers are not exactly demanding products that emphasize humane treatment of animals, even when consumers have expressed a strong preference for better animal welfare?

Some commentators blame consumers, but I think that is a mistake. I argue that labels are the problem. Current animal welfare labeling is voluntary, non-standardized, rarely audited for compliance, and largely unregulated at either the state or federal level. As a result, animal welfare labeling conveys neither clear nor credible information about the actual treatment of agricultural animals. This explains the absence of enhanced-welfare animal products in real-world markets. If consumers don't understand or trust the enhanced-welfare labels, then they have no reason to pay more for the associated products. And because consumers won't pay more for products that claim enhanced-welfare practices were used, producers have no reason to adopt such practices, particularly when they increase production costs. The problem isn't lack of demand, it's "lack of a market" due to deficiencies in current labeling practices.

What do you think are some of the barriers to implementing your animal welfare labeling recommendation?

This article is at best a first step in the direction of empowering market regulation of animal welfare, and it offers only a very general policy recommendation: eliminate the identified deficiencies in animal welfare labeling. The next step in the project would be to flesh out the details of improving animal welfare labeling, and it's here that the challenges to implementation will become apparent. I should emphasize that the implementation step is where the real work begins, and the project is going to require contributors with many different forms of expertise. It's a formidable task, but improving animal welfare labeling practices stands to benefit a huge number of consumers and animals without really harming anyone that doesn't want to buy or produce enhanced-welfare products. There aren't a lot of projects with that kind of everybody-wins payoff on the back-end.

How did you get interested in this topic?

A lot of the work on animal-welfare regulation is emotionally motivated, strongly divisive and basically involves one group of people telling another group how to behave. I don't mean to disparage that approach, but neither do I see where it's really getting anywhere. By contrast, a market regulation approach to animal welfare lets each person choose the level of animal welfare that's right for them — it allows concerned consumers to pay more for improved welfare practices without driving up the costs of all animal products for less-concerned consumers. I'm a big fan of the market regulation approach, but in looking around I noted that it doesn't seem to be working very well in practice. This article is my attempt to explain why market regulation is falling short in this country.