The Welfare Debate 1: Boehringer Ingelheim Prompts Certification and Welfare Discussion at Animal Well-being Forum

The debates of the sixth animal well-being conference in Bilbao this summer are discussed in a three part series. This first installment looks at the moral and biological considerations involved in using animal welfare as a commodity.
calendar icon 1 October 2013
clock icon 4 minute read
Boehringer Ingelheim - Farm Animal Well-Being

Can the well-being of an animal be measured objectively?

In order to assess animal well-being objectively, there is a need to split the moral and biological component, said professor Frauke Ohl (Professor on Animal Welfare and Laboratory Animal Science, Utrecht University, The Netherlands).

“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.”

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.


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Boehringer Ingelheim - Farm Animal Well-Being
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