Global Approaches to Farm Animal Welfare Hit Home

This article is taken from the proceedings of the Livestock Care Conference, held by Alberta Farm Animal Care. New emphasis on animal welfare in the U.S., Europe and internationally is changing the dynamics of how food is produced and marketed worldwide.
calendar icon 16 May 2008
clock icon 7 minute read

For those still not convinced that consumer concerns over animal welfare represent anything more than a fringe mentality, consider the following: according to a 2007 American Farm Bureau survey, 68 percent of Americans polled think the government should take an active role in promoting the welfare of farm animals.

Nothing new, right? Most producers have heard statistics like this before, but there are two things that set this one apart. First, it’s the result of a poll conducted by an independent grassroots farm agency rather than a group, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), with a specific agenda on animal welfare. Secondly, it’s a call for government intervention in a country that typically waves the flag for government that is as small as possible.

To Dr. Ed Pajor, director for the Center for Animal Well-Being at Purdue University in Indiana, it’s an example of a new social ethic concerning animals – and one that has turned long-relied-upon models of livestock production and marketing on their heads.

Pajor spent two years studying the animal welfare culture of Europe and the United States – two markets with far different approaches to animal welfare that are nevertheless heading toward a similar end-point. In a presentation at the Livestock Care Conference in Red Deer, Alberta April 4, he offered an overview of his findings and what they may mean to the Canadian livestock industry going forward.

“Emerging animal welfare policy from powerful world bodies such as the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) is set to have a major influence on policy in North America,” he says. “Meanwhile, the free market is already having a major impact, with major food companies increasingly preferring to work with suppliers who can provide proof of responsible animal welfare practices.

“This means higher expectations for the livestock industry, but it can also mean a great opportunity for those who can provide this assurance. The bottom line is that demand for transparent animal welfare will not be going away. It’s a reflection of a whole new way in which society views animals, and is quickly becoming part of the culture of agriculture as well.”

The OIE animal-centered approach

No discussion of farm animal welfare at the global level would be complete without mentioning the World Organization for Animal Health, otherwise known as the OIE. Created in 1924 to develop standards to combat the outbreak of animal diseases, OIE standards have become the international reference in the field of animal diseases for the World Trade Organization (WTO). In recent years, this relationship has helped the OIE become a key developer of international standards for animal welfare as well.

Countries are under no obligation to adopt OIE standards and guidelines, says Pajor. However, the OIE’s emphasis on science-based guidelines and its “five freedoms” of animal care (freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury and disease; freedom to express normal behaviour; and freedom from fear and distress) have made the organization a standard-bearer for countries seeking approaches that satisfy customer demands.

“What sets the OIE’s guidelines apart is its emphasis on animal-based criteria as opposed to resource-based criteria. The difference is that the former sets out easily-measurable guidelines related to design and inputs such as space allowances, temperature ranges, and air quality. Animal-based criteria, on the other hand, focuses on performance and output factors such as survival rate, disease and injury, behaviour, and reaction to handlers. These criteria are very difficult to measure, but they address the needs of individual animals much more comprehensively.”

Europe: a legislative approach

Speaking in a general sense, Europe is different culturally from countries such as the U.S. in that its citizens look to government for a comprehensive degree of leadership, says Pajor. And, true to the wishes of its populace, Europe took a lead on animal welfare in the 1960s, when the Council of Europe began to focus on animal welfare issues.

Today, animal welfare has become part of Europe’s culture of agriculture. The European model of developing animal welfare law follows the top-down model of the OIE – albeit on a more prescriptive basis – by providing guidelines and minimum requirements that often become law at the national level.

The Council of Europe, which includes 46 member states, issues both binding conventions and non-binding guidelines on animal care for its members. The 27 countries that make up the European Union also fall under directives established by the EU-27, he says. These directives, which are almost always based on reports from scientific experts, generally focus on animal-centered outcomes such as space allowance per animal, freedom of movement, social interaction and the limitation of painful interventions.

In addition to government-driven legislation and standards, animal welfare also plays a large role in industry-based quality assurance schemes. “Industry-driven quality assurance is considered very important to European consumers, especially niche markets, and are often stricter than other regulations,” says Pajor.

Although much of the above may sound very prescriptive, the fact is that Europe has based most of its animal welfare activity on the wishes of European consumers. They are able to do so because of a strong foundation of data measuring public opinion – a tool that is largely missing in North America, says Pajor.

“The Eurobarometer, a series of surveys on the attitudes of Europeans on a variety of topics, breaks opinion on animal welfare issues down by individual countries. Not surprisingly, these opinions vary in the same way they might vary between, for example, Calgary and Toronto. The overall message, however, is that, to Europeans as a whole, animal welfare is considered an important attribute of overall food quality.”

This infrastructure of public opinion is helping to drive the Welfare Quality Project, a $27 million effort involving 17 countries and 44 universities and institute which stands to become the next generation of animal welfare in Europe. One of the key goals of the project is to develop criteria which capture the public’s description of animal welfare.

“I believe this project will have a significant impact on North American agriculture,” says Pajor. “It won’t reflect just a few people’s opinion – it will be the opinion of a lot of people in a lot of countries with a lot of scientific power backing it up.”

U.S. animal welfare: driven by economics

In the U.S., it’s been the private sector that has taken the lead on animal welfare activity, with Burger King’s decision to discontinue the acceptance of hogs raised in gestation stalls being one of the most prominent examples. “For the most part, however, animal welfare in the U.S. is based on voluntary guidelines, although state bans on specific production systems are appearing and animal law is becoming a rapidly growing area of law,” says Pajor.

Animal welfare is being built into several private sector-based quality assurance strategies in the U.S. However, Pajor says there is a general tendency to emphasize resource or engineering-based criteria over the kind of animal-focused criteria modeled by the OIE. This approach may not be enough moving forward, however.

“A recent Gallup poll showed that 71 percent of respondents felt that animals deserved some protection, while 25 percent felt that they deserved the same rights as people,” says Pajor. “Twenty-five percent is a huge number. And while it’s possible that many respondents had companion animals in mind when forming these results, there are implications here on how they think about other types of animals as well. The fact that the same poll showed that 62 percent of respondents favoured passing strict laws concerning the treatment of farm animals bears this out.”

Pajor believes consumers, often informed by activists, will continue to play a role in industry action on animal welfare. “By targeting just a few firms, activists are achieving de facto changes in industry regulations in the U.S. These regulations are not imposed by legislators, but by firms seeking a competitive advantage. If you can convince Wal-Mart that animals should be produced in a certain way, there will be a huge impact on how they’re produced.”

Where we’re headed

The bottom line, says Pajor, is that animal welfare is here to stay, with guidelines and standards continuing to be developed at all levels, including international agreements and multinational companies. A key strategy moving forward, he says, will be to bullet-proof animal welfare assurance programs against external criticism as much as possible.

“These processes will need to be as transparent as possible, complete with third party audits. Having codes without assessment, audit and teeth is something that will come under more and more criticism.”

The livestock industry can also expect animal welfare expectations to become more animal-centered, he says. “We will have more and more undercover video of operations that have been certified. If assurance programs are not taken seriously, consumers will lose trust in our systems and the public has limited trust already. If animal welfare is not embraced wholeheartedly as a necessary element of animal production, grassroots efforts will fall apart and be filled by legislation.”

Further Reading

More information - You can view other features from the 2008 Livestock Care Conference by clicking here.

April 2008

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