In recent years, the American public has become increasingly concerned about the well-being of farm animals as more of the animals whose meat we eat (or whose eggs, milk or cheese we consume) are raised in factory-like conditions called confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). CAFOs are systems that can confine more than 1,000 cows, 2,500 hogs or 125,000 chickens at one time. According to the Union for Concerned Scientists, CAFOs produce more than 50 percent of food animals in the U.S. Some 15,500 CAFOs operate in the U.S., and according to one watchdog group, CAFOs produced 28.5 million animal units in 2012. [More than 50 billion farm animals are raised each year around the world, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, with a growing number in confined feeding operations.]

CAFOs are able to produce meat at lower costs compared to traditional husbandry systems, but, with so many animals kept close together and in extreme confinement, basic veterinary care and concern for animals’ quality of life often compete with farmers’concern for profit margins.

More TBR 6
1. Som Castellano’s intro to TBR 6
2. Constance on economic concentration in ag
3. Deemer on social class and animal welfare
4. Saxton on farmworker injustice and health
5. Meiretto on immigration policy and food security
6. Wuerzer, Fry & Anderson on food access in Ada County
7.  Bruce on producing food for alternative food networks
8. Som Castellano on gender inequality in the local food movement

Recent research findings suggest that concern for the treatment of farm animals is not a sentiment spread equally across all social groups. People experiencing financial hardship report feeling more concerned about the treatment of farm animals compared to the financially secure. While this finding is perhaps surprising and even counterintuitive, it falls in line with findings in social attitudes research. Understanding who is concerned about farm animal welfare can lend insight to effective strategies for broad reform in livestock agriculture.


Many Americans are concerned about the well-being of chickens, hogs and cows confined to CAFOs because these animals may suffer for the majority of their short lives. They are often unable to turn around or exhibit natural behaviors like grooming or socializing. For example, there are currently about six million sows confined to crates where they gestate and nurse their piglets. These crates prevent sows from changing positions and often lead to stress diseases like open sores, ulcers and neurotic behaviors. Due to the vast number of animals confined in each CAFO system, sick animals often go untreated, forced to endure an agonized existence until they expire or are culled.

CAFOs in Idaho

Southern Idaho is home to dozens of beef and dairy CAFOs, and the industry generates tens of millions of dollars annually. While former state senator Tim Corder called CAFOs “fairly benign, environmentally,” critics argue that rural communities suffer the side effects of CAFOs in the form of respiratory diseases, manure pollution to air and watersheds and lowered property values. The non-therapeutic use of antibiotics (fed to animals in order to promote faster growth) has also created antibiotic-resistant pathogens that threaten community health.

However, CAFOs are only the most extreme manifestation of inhumane farm animal treatment. As one 2010 farm animal abuse case at a small family dairy in Ohio highlights, no farm, no matter how small or bucolic, is guaranteed to treat farm animals humanely because all farm animals live and thrive and die at the behest of humans. Farm animals are highly dependent on human beings for their health and well-being, making them — along with zoo and lab animals — some the most powerless and vulnerable animals on earth. That is why we speak of farm animal treatment in terms of humane and inhumane: the compassion and sympathy we lend to the most vulnerable creatures reflects our decency as human beings.

The American public’s growing concern for the treatment of farm animals is perhaps reflected most clearly in the rise of food labels on meat, dairy and egg products certifying humane treatment of farm animals. The Animal Welfare Institute endorses seven food labels that include “Animal Welfare Approved” and “American Humane Certified.” These products can cost up to $2 to $3 per pound more than conventional meat products. While the higher cost of humane products reflects higher production costs and certification fees, it also means that humane-certified animal products are a luxury item for many consumers.


With growing public interest in farm animal welfare, social scientists are interested in understanding who cares most about the treatment of farm animals. In particular, some analysts want to know how concern for farm animals is linked to social status. In other words, do the rich or the poor care most about farm animals? Based on the fact that humanely raised animal products are more expensive, one might presume that upper-class, wealthier people who can afford these products would be most concerned about the treatment of farm animals. Concern for farm animals is, after all, an issue of ethics and personal values.

Wal-Mart hot dogs

Robert S. Donovan / Flickr (cc)
Wall of hot dogs at Wal-Mart.

Social scientists call these types of concerns “post-materialist.” Political scientist Ronald Inglehart argues that wealthy societies should care more about post-material concerns because they do not need to worry about meeting basic needs and have the additional resources to invest in values issues. Societies that are financially stressed should be most concerned about materialistic issues like meeting basic needs (e.g., food and shelter) and do not have extra resources to invest in post-materialist concerns. Extending this logic to public concern for farm animal treatment, the wealthy should care most about farm animal welfare because they have the luxury to care about (and consume) animal welfare, while the poor should care least because they have more pressing, materialistic issues to deal with.

In reality, studies show nearly the opposite to be true. Researchers at the Ohio State University find in two papers published in the journal Rural Sociology that people who are struggling financially report greater concern for animal welfare. Analyzing data from a 2002 survey of Ohio households, Holli A. Kendall, Linda M. Lobao and Jeff S. Sharp found that respondents experiencing greater financial hardship were significantly more concerned about human use and treatment of animals while upper-income respondents were significantly less concerned. Similarly, an analysis of 2007 data from a survey of Ohio and U.S. households that I completed with Lobao revealed that financial hardship is associated with significantly greater concern for the treatment of farm animals. While these findings might be surprising, they support findings of other studies that people lower in the social hierarchy care more about animals.

The finding that the less-well-off are more concerned about farm animals may seem counterintuitive. Shouldn’t people facing financial strain be consumed by more immediate concerns than the treatment of animals? Yet, this aligns with a wealth of psychological research that consistently finds members of the upper class care less about other people compared to the lower class. For instance, studies find that upper class households donate proportionately less of their incomes to charity compared to lower-income households. Additionally, those making on average $1 million per year or more tend to oppose policies that benefit working and poor Americans and are more likely to favor cuts for major social programs like social security. And while the public tends to perceive crime as a lower class phenomenon, upper-class individuals are more likely break the law, lie and cheat. In fact, wealthy individuals are more likely to shoplift at some point in their lives than the poor.

Broiler chickens in rearing shed.

Naim Alel / Wikimedia (cc)
Broiler chickens in rearing shed.

Analysts suggest that the greater privileges and resources associated with belonging to the upper class encourages self-centered thinking which leads to lower concern for others. Studies find that concern for animals and concern for people is highly intertwined, which suggests that self-centered thinking may also explain why the haves care less about farm animal welfare than the have-nots.

On the other hand, those near the bottom of the social order may care more about other people and animals because they experience more vulnerability, which may make it easier to empathize with others in vulnerable positions. The lower class may feel particular empathy toward farm animals’ lack of control over their health, their living conditions, their destinies and their deaths because those experiencing financial strain or poverty can also feel that they lack control over these aspects of their lives.

A 2010 study published in Psychological Science offers support for this hypothesis. Michael W. Kraus and colleagues find that lower-class individuals scored higher on empathic accuracy tests (i.e., the ability to gauge the emotional states of others). These findings may explain why many studies find that women, who are beneath men in the social hierarchy, tend to be more concerned about and express more empathy toward farm animals.


That people higher in the social order are less concerned about the well-being of farm animals (and of others in general) while people of lower social status are more concerned is a fascinating finding, but also a troubling one. Animal welfare in the U.S. is largely achieved through the marketplace in the form of labels for humanely-raised meat products. Farm animal welfare is currently a commodity and a luxury, meaning that only those with expendable incomes can afford to support animal welfare. Yet, consumers who can afford to support farm animal welfare are less likely to be concerned about farm animal welfare. This poses a dilemma for advocates. In the absence of federal laws regulating the treatment of farm animals, humane labels are one of the only tools available for instigating broad change in the food system. Yet, it’s not clear how the upper class can be made to feel more concerned about the treatment of farm animals in order to make these labeling schemes an effective reform tool.

Alternative tools exist, however, and commodifying and selling animal welfare may not be the most effective strategy for achieving systematic reform of livestock agriculture. One alternative already in place in many states is animal confinement laws. Michigan State’ Animal Legal and Historical Center maintains a database of state laws governing animal treatment. Fourteen states including California, Oregon, Utah and Colorado have passed statutes through legislation or ballot initiatives that regulate the confinement of farm animals and in many instances call for confined animals to be able to turn around freely and fully extend their limbs.

Ag-gag’s demise

In response to activists’ efforts to publicize inhumane conditions at CAFOs, several states have enacted “ag-gag” laws that ban undercover filming on farms in order to prevent whistleblowers from documenting livestock abuse. Idaho passed its ag-gag law in 2014, criminalizing undercover video or audio recording at farms. However, a federal district court judge struck down Idaho’s law in August 2015, declaring it a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech.

These laws and the processes that formed them are not free from conflict and controversy and many advocates feel these laws do not go far enough in improving farm animal treatment. These laws do not protect all farm animals from extreme confinement and mainly focus on pigs and veal calves. They also do not address the issue of farm animals’ overall care and quality of life. However, these laws are important for at least two reasons: first, laws are the products of civic, public discourse, which means that laws reflect our society’s values and not simply consumer tastes. These laws send an important message to U.S. consumers and to lawmakers in other states, that the public cares about the treatment of farm animals and wants better treatment of farm animals to be a central concern of our republic, on par with anti-cruelty protections we have long extended to companion animals.

Secondly, because laws supersede the marketplace, they do not allow consumers to opt out of paying for animal welfare. This means that the increased cost associated with improving animal confinement systems is spread across all consumers in a state with confinement laws, rather than being the attribute of a more expensive food product marketed to affluent shoppers. This means those who value animal welfare the most (i.e., the less wealthy) have increased access to foods that are produced according to their values. In a nation of deep social inequality, laws are the great equalizer for humans and animals alike. With increased state regulation of farm animal welfare, more consumers will be able to afford humanely treated animal products and more animals will be afforded humane treatment.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.