Food Labelling and Veterinary Involvement Key to Meeting Improved Food Chain Transparency

An examination of welfare labels and the notion of objective welfare measurement was given by a list of leading experts including Dr Francesco Testa of Bergamo, Italy.
calendar icon 20 August 2013
clock icon 10 minute read

In order to assess animal well-being objectively, there is a need to split the moral and biological component, said Professor Frauke Ohl of the Utrecht University, The Netherlands to the Animal Well-being Forum at Bilbao in June.

“We need to evaluate these independently before we merge them,” she said. “The mixture of these two components is necessary as it is humans that feel the need to come up with welfare safeguards. But if we don’t differentiate, we will end up in a never ending debate.”

She explained how assessment of welfare should not so much focus on the challenge which an animal faces at a given moment, but on whether or not it could react appropriately (i.e. adaptively) to both positive and negative stimuli. But again this concept was confused by human morality.

“It is one aspect how an animal perceives a situation, but what an animal is adapted to may not be what we see as morally acceptable. For example, cattle may be adapted to starve in winter, be we may have a moral obligation to feed them in winter.”

She said there was a need for one more transparent approach. “A mouse is a mouse is a mouse, it doesn’t matter if it’s a pet, pest or lab animal, its capacity to deal with the situation is the same, but our human perception differs.”

"Society believes there’s good welfare in free range, but we do have problems developing because of the size of systems."
Dr Emma Roe - University of Southampton, UK

Is Farm Animal Welfare a Commodity?

Although the consumer may be driving much of the changes in farm animal welfare, it is dangerous to let welfare standards be purely driven by economics, said Dr Emma Roe (lecturer in human geography, University of Southampton, UK).

“Farm animal welfare is limited if it is only viewed as a commodity or economically,” she said.
Referencing the growth of the free range egg market, she said because the concept of free range was one understood by consumers it was easily marketable by retailers.

Initially the idea of free range had been introduced by supermarkets as a way of segmenting the market; it was only later the welfare benefits began to be recognised. However, in pushing the concept it had perhaps masked areas for improvement, she said.

“Society believes there’s good welfare in free range, but we do have problems developing because of the size of systems. It’s not the panacea of welfare we perhaps thought,” commented Dr Roe.

“We need to understand commercial drives for improving animal welfare are destroying and isolating particular higher welfare features and are ignoring the holistic welfare picture.

“We shouldn’t just leave it to the retailers. It’s important we help to promote a new understanding. We have a big job to do to think about how we communicate the needs of an animal to consumers so they buy into higher welfare,” she said.

Marketing Animal Welfare as a Quality Characteristic of Milk

A study in the Flanders region of Belgium is assessing whether consumers would be willing to pay a premium for milk marketed as high welfare.

Sophie de Graaf (Institute of Agriculture and Fisheries Research (ILVO) and Ghent University, Belgium) said the MELKWEL study, which will run from 2012 to 2016, assesses the opportunity for animal welfare to be used as a marketing strategy for milk.

“To stimulate the dairy industry to address welfare problems in cattle, it is not only important that the evaluation of welfare is valid, but also that the welfare monitoring process meets various needs such as communication to the consumer, or acceptability by the farmer and industry as a whole,” she said.
As a result, the study involves consumers, farmers and retailers. Ms de Graaf explained how consumers will have to answer a questionnaire to establish their willingness to buy welfare friendly milk.

An experimental auction will then be run to see whether they will pay more for high welfare branded products.

Farms will also be assessed using the Welfare Quality protocol for assessing cattle welfare which looks at animal-based measures. So far, 43 farms have been assessed and categorised based on their welfare status.

Discussions among various stakeholders will be used to assess the best ways of monitoring and addressing welfare on farm. This will then be linked to what motivates the consumer to buy welfare friendly milk.

Should Veterinary Surgeons Promote Higher Welfare Food to Consumers?

Vets have an important role to play in educating consumers on the welfare of farmed animals, while promoting higher welfare assurance schemes, said Sean Wensley (Senior veterinary surgeon at the People’ Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), UK).

He explained how the UK had already demonstrated the influence of food standards labelling on shopper purchasing habits.

“Labelling does help drive sales,” said Mr Wensley. “For example between 2006 and 2011 the number of broilers reared to Freedom Foods Standards in the UK went up 60 per cent while pigs reared to the same standard increased by 84 per cent . If the consumer is better informed, it can affect demand.”

With vets acting as trusted voices on animal welfare on a global scale, they have a vital role in pushing such a trend in high welfare food sales, he said.

There were already examples where vet organisations had taken the lead in selecting high welfare produce. For example, the UK Association of Veterinary Students made a conscious decision to only buy pizzas containing meat produced from animals that had been stunned at slaughter.

“The British Cattle Veterinary Association also said they strongly believed in the Red Tractor Assurance logo for red meat which could set a precedent for other veterinary associations,” said Mr Wensley. The key was for vets to lead by example.

In practice he also said the profession could easily distribute consumer shopping choice information and leaflets to clients.

On-farm Welfare Audits - An Opportunity for the Veterinary Profession?

Vets are ideally positioned to help dairy producers achieve high welfare on farm, said Dr Francesco Testa (Bovine practitioner for the technical services for farmers, Bergamo, Italy).

“There is a real opportunity for vets to perform farm audits,” he said. “Welfare is a source of income for veterinary clients and the vet is a key person to give advice on animal welfare.”

Dr Testa explained how welfare audits carried out by the Technical Service to Farms (SATA) in the high milk producing region of Lombardy in Italy had helped dairy farmers target areas for improvement by using the SATA Welfare Index (IBS).

"Welfare is a source of income for veterinary clients and the vet is a key person to give advice on animal welfare."
Dr Fracesco Testa - Bovine practitioner for technical farm service 

He urged veterinary surgeons to look at all the aspects affecting cow welfare when going on farm for routine checks, rather than just looking at the number of empty cows or incidence of displaced abomasums.

“Farmers listen very carefully to vets. This is a good opportunity for vets to share technical advice,” he said.

Dr Testa said farm meetings were also a practical and effective way of communicating the animal welfare benefits of making management changes on farm. “Get dairy farmers together, get a sponsor to pay for dinner and then discuss issues,” he said.

This will help increase awareness and allow the sharing of information. Effective changes made by other farmers help our clients to be convinced of the utility of change. Farm meetings or visits are a tool to encourage farmers reluctant to face welfare issues.”

Animal Welfare Standards – Example of McDonald’s Supply Chain

McDonald’s ensures each part of the supply chain acts to make sure farm animal welfare is maintained, said Ignacio Blanco-Traba (director for the beef supply chain in Europe, McDonald’s Europe).

“Globally we serve 69 million customers a day and in Europe in 2012 McDonald’s processed over 3 million cattle,” he said. “With big volume there is big responsibility, but we have a close partnership with suppliers and we are focused on delivering quality and value.”

He said McDonald’s ensured all stages of the production process were approved, from the feed mill, to farms, slaughter houses to deboning and patty houses.

“An animal welfare program is embedded in the wider McDonald’s program,” he said. An animal welfare beef audit designed by animal behaviour specialist, Temple Grandin, is carried out monthly in slaughterhouses. In it, a third party checks for key indicators including slipping, falling, vocalisation and ineffective stunning.

“Slaughterhouses also feedback key measurements to farmers so they can put in any necessary improvements on farm,” he said.

The company also has a Global Animal Health and Welfare team, which is currently looking at cull cattle care, laying hen housing and broiler stunning sensibility.

Although McDonald’s doesn’t have dedicated suppliers, it ensures they source produce through dedicated schemes to make sure they adhere to the company’s animal welfare requirements.

“Our attention to welfare has been driven by moral obligation first and also in response to what the consumer is asking,” Mr Blanco-Traba explained.


Farm animal welfare: What’s behind the labels?

The wide range of product labelling surrounding animal welfare means many European consumers are confused by the information on food products and frustrated in their choices, said Dr David C J Main (Department of Clinical Veterinary Science, University of Bristol, UK).

In the UK alone, one product could contain a number of different logos, he said. “For example products can be labelled as adhering to certain assurance or organic schemes, and they may be labelled according to method of production or include higher welfare marketing claims.

“Part of the recommendations in The EU Strategy for the Protection and Welfare of Animals 2012-2015 was to improve customer information and their empowerment,” he explained.

And although he recognised that labelling was, and would remain complicated, he said there could be some key changes in the future.

“Regulatory frameworks do exist for some production systems such as laying hens, however, some animal welfare organisations, such as Compassion in World Farming and the RSPCA are actively campaigning for an extension of mandatory labelling beyond laying hens to other species.

“This gives the consumer information on the potential for high welfare that a farming system offers when well-managed,” he said.

Currently, a lack of standardization also meant it was difficult to promote trade in equivalent higher welfare products, he said.

However, in the future it may also be possible for animal welfare focused schemes to agree a voluntary international standard based upon best practice principles that would be applicable in any country, he said.

Global Animal Partnership and the 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards Program

A multi-tiered animal welfare rating program is helping to promote improvements in farm animal welfare in the USA, according to Miyun Park (executive director of Global Animal Partnership, USA).

The NGO, Global Animal Partnership as an example of multi-stakeholders working together to boost animal welfare, she said.

“Global Animal Partnership brings together farmers, scientists, ranchers, retailers and animal advocates,” she explained. “This is a diverse group with the common goal of promoting continuous improvement in the welfare of animals in agriculture.”

The organisation worked together to develop its signature initiative; the 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating program, which aims to promote high welfare.

“The 5-Step program is a multi-tiered welfare program, which has become a leading farm animal welfare certification system in North America,” Ms Park explained.

Whereas single tiered programs only encourage producers to meet minimum standards, the multi-tiered program promotes continuous improvements in farm animal welfare. Producers have the option to progress through the tier system to the defined higher level of welfare outlined by step 5+, she said.

“Each Step rating has its own distinct label affixed on products that identifies the particular Step level achieved,” said Ms Park.

“In essence Step 1 prohibits cages and crates, while the highest level, step 5+ sees the entire life of animal spent on an integrated farm,” she said.

With 76 per cent of USA consumers saying farm animal wellbeing was more important than low price, and nearly 89 per cent agreeing that food companies with a requirement for farmers to treat animals better were doing the right thing, such labelling allowed consumers to select produce based on welfare standards.

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