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An issue in its own right

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IT’S a pity in a way that two recent reports from the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) – on the welfare implications of farm assurance schemes, and on the welfare of farmed animals at gatherings, both of which appeared at the end of last month – were published simultaneously. Each is important, and both deserve to be widely read. It would be unfortunate if information overload lessened their impact or resulted in their receiving less attention than if they had been published separately.

Like previous documents from the FAWC, they make a number of recommendations based on careful observation and reasoned argument, coupled with an appreciation of what can be realistically achieved. An independent advisory body established by government, the FAWC tends not to overstate its case, and makes its points gently but firmly. This kind of approach can be more effective in the longer term. That said, its reports have become a little more forthright in recent years and, while the underlying message remains the same, there is less need to read between the lines than previously.

This is exemplified in the report on farm assurance schemes (VR, July 9, 2005, vol 157, pp 34-35), which gives a clear exposition of the current state of play and highlights the potential for animal welfare to have a higher profile than is currently the case. It explains how if, as is suggested, consumer choice is to play a role in helping to raise standards, suppliers, processors, retailers and caterers and consumers themselves must all play their part; standards need to be applied throughout the food chain, and consumers must be fully informed of the standards applied. It suggests that food processors and retailers, in particular, can have a significant influence on the way and extent to which farm assurance develops, and could do more to drive things forward. Claims that retailers’ policies are determined solely by what consumers want are, the FAWC says, ‘true only in a limited sense’: ‘The reality is that major retailers are the prime determinants of the nature or range of products that are offered, and the consumers are influential only to the extent that they accept or reject from amongst what they are offered by means of their purchasing power.’

The FAWC believes that welfare requirements applied to food produced in the UK should be applied equally to imported livestock products and that, because retailers are not restricted by World Trade Organization rules, which prevent discrimination between products based purely on the method of production, they are in a unique position to make this a reality. The same standards should apply irrespective of whether food is sold fresh, frozen or processed. It believes that food service operators, too, should take more interest in the welfare provenance of food and criticises the Government for not specifying minimum animal welfare standards as part of its Public Sector Food Procurement Initiative: ‘It can hardly be expected that individuals and private sector organisations will respond to public declarations and urgings to pursue high welfare standards in food production if the Government’s own purchasing activities do not endorse these principles.’

A section on organic standards assesses the extent to which organic certification equates to welfare assurance, and points out that the two are not necessarily one and the same. It makes specific recommendations on herd/flock health planning, parasite control and the use of medicines and vaccines. On the separate matter of Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform, the FAWC expresses concern that the emphasis on environmental criteria in the current cross-compliance regime could lead to reduced emphasis on animal welfare. It argues that ‘If farming is to be supported on the grounds of its qualitative contribution to the countryside, then good animal welfare is as important as environmental care as a component of “good agricultural practice”.’

The report on the welfare of animals at gatherings is equally pertinent, and covers many situations where animals are gathered together, whether for sale, onward transfer or for shows and exhibitions. It does not confine itself to farmed species, but also considers horse markets, sales and fairs. It identifies gaps in legislation and inconsistencies in enforcement and makes numerous recommendations, the most notable of which is that the Government should produce a single piece of legislation, backed up by site-specific codes of practice, to protect the welfare of livestock and horses at all types of gathering (see p 66 of this issue).

The FAWC’s annual report for 2004/05 was also published last month and gives a wider perspective on its activities. Matters discussed include the draft Animal Welfare Bill. This is described in the report as ‘a great advance on the present legislative framework, which places considerable reliance on the veterinary profession delivering an informed opinion on both matters of health and welfare’. It is, the FAWC says, ‘critically important that welfare is seen as an important issue in its own right and that high standards of veterinary training support this’. It also points out, rightly, that, to have the desired impact, the new legislation must be effectively enforced, and that this will require funding.

The point about animal welfare being an issue in its own right is a good one. Whether in relation to farm assurance, CAP reform or the Government’s Animal Health and Welfare Strategy, efforts must continue to be made to ensure it gets the attention it deserves.

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