Reflections on Proposition 2 and Consumer ChoicesPosted by Matthew Liebman, ALDF Staff Attorney on June 14, 2010
A new study published in the Journal of Agricultural & Food Industrial Organization raises interesting questions about the role of legal campaigns in changing consumer choices on animal protection issues. The study’s author, Dr. Jayson L. Lusk, a professor of agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University, looked at how Proposition 2, the California ballot initiative that prohibits the use of battery cages for egg-laying hens, has affected consumer demand for eggs obtained through non-battery cage production methods.
It should be noted that Prop 2, which passed with 63% of the vote in November 2008, has not yet gone into effect, and it won’t for another five years. So the study did not look at how effective the law itself has been at eliminating battery cages. Rather, Dr. Lusk evaluated how the popular discussions about the law, such as newspaper articles and op-ed pieces, influenced consumer demand for non-battery cage eggs.
To determine whether the increased public awareness caused by Prop 2 changed the kind of eggs people buy, Dr. Lusk’s compared the changes in demand for cage-free and organic eggs in Oakland and San Francisco (cities heavily influenced by the Prop 2 campaign) with those in Dallas and Ft. Worth (cities not affected by the Prop 2 campaign) during the two-year period leading up to and immediately following the Prop 2 vote. The study found that consumers in Oakland and San Francisco increased their purchases of cage-free eggs by 180% and of organic eggs by 20%, while purchases of battery cage eggs decreased correspondingly. In Dallas and Ft. Worth, on the other hand, demand for non-battery cage eggs stayed about the same. From this data, the study concludes that the Prop 2 campaign increased public awareness about egg production methods and, as a result, changed consumer choices.
To the extent that cage-free systems increase animal welfare, this is good news. But those of us who oppose the exploitation of animals for food, regardless of how “humane” the process, have serious reservations about encouraging people to buy cage-free eggs. The bottom-line is that, although cage-free systems are marginally better than battery cages, they still require massive animal exploitation. Yet many vegans supported Prop 2, not because they support cage-free exploitation, but because getting people to start thinking about where their food comes from is an important first step. The hope was that once people understood the reality of modern food production, they might begin questioning the entire edifice of animal agriculture, eventually adopting a vegan diet.
But here’s the bad news: the study states that “while Prop 2 may have changed which eggs consumers chose to buy, the information contained in Prop 2 did not cause a decline in total egg expenditures.” In other words, consumers in Oakland and San Francisco haven’t decreased the amount of eggs they eat, just where those eggs come from.
Some have argued that this fact reflects the failure of the Prop 2 campaign to create a fundamental rethinking of animal agriculture, cages or no cages. I share this concern, but I think it’s far too early to reach this conclusion. Changes in social attitudes don’t happen over the span of a couple of years; it’s still possible the consumers who have switched to cage-free eggs could next switch to veganism. Personally, I was vegetarian for five years before I became vegan, so I know it can take years to develop a personal ethic of eating, even after being exposed to the truth of animal agriculture.
And the good news from the study is that people do change their purchasing habits in response to public education. The next step, then, is for us to educate consumers about the ongoing suffering associated with all forms of animal agriculture, including cage-free systems.