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Raising the bar on welfare

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FROM its title, a report published this week called 'Farm animal welfare in Great Britain: past, present and future' sounds ambitious — and so it is. Produced by the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC), which advises the Government on farm animal welfare policy, it considers progress since Professor Roger Brambell produced his seminal report on the subject in 1965, assesses the situation as things stand, and sets out a strategy that the FAWC believes will lead to steady improvements in the welfare of farm animals over the next 20 years.* In doing so, and in making recommendations for government and industry, it calls for a shift in the current focus of policy on animal welfare, so that this moves beyond preventing cruelty and unnecessary suffering and providing for animals' needs, to ensuring an acceptable quality of life over the animal's lifetime. It points out that this, in turn, will require regular monitoring of welfare over the animal's life — 'on the farm, during transport, at gatherings and at the abattoir, including the manner of its death' — and it calls for increased surveillance of animal welfare, using validated systems of assessment that emphasise animal-based outcomes and not just resource inputs.

The FAWC believes that there is strong evidence of significant improvements in livestock welfare since the Brambell report was published nearly 45 years ago. However, it also draws attention to areas where progress has been slow or seems to have stalled and argues that further progress is needed. It emphasises the importance of good stockmanship and husbandry to animal welfare, and also the purchasing power of consumers to ensure that welfare is improved. However, it says, while most farmers have made determined efforts to ensure acceptable quality of life for farm animals — whether by training stockmen, through the development of husbandry systems or by animal breeding — the potential power of concerned consumers to help bring about improvements through market demand is largely unrealised because of a lack of information at the point of sale to allow informed choices to be made. It calls for more information about the welfare provenance of food to be made available to consumers, and also for the establishment of an independent service to provide citizens with authoritative, accurate and impartial information about farm animal welfare generally. It also points out, rightly, that similar standards should be applied to both 'home-grown' and imported produce and recommends that food labelling schemes should also indicate the country of origin.

If adopted, the idea of specifying minimum welfare standards in terms of quality of life would take efforts to improve animal welfare a step beyond the concepts enshrined in the Five Freedoms, which have formed the cornerstone for policy for more than 30 years. By concentrating on avoiding suffering and meeting animals' needs, the Five Freedoms, the FAWC suggests, tend to reinforce a negative image of farming and food production. It suggests that more might be achieved by focusing on quality of life, with an animal's quality of life being classified as 'a life not worth living, a life worth living and a good life'. The quality of an animal's life would be defined by an independent body, with marketing claims to the higher standard, corresponding to 'a good life', being verified independently for both home-produced and imported food. The FAWC notes that any efforts to improve animal welfare depend on developing standardised, practical, validated measures of welfare assessment, and it calls for more research in this area.

The FAWC points out that successful implementation of the proposed policy will require strong support and action from everyone involved in the food chain, including farmers, retailers and consumers. However, it emphasises the key role of government in helping to bring about improvements, noting that 'independent guardianship of the welfare of farm animals is the Government's responsibility'. Its report identifies a number of areas where the Government should act in terms of developing legislation, strengthening public welfare surveillance and providing independent advice.

The FAWC's report comes at a time when the Government continues to emphasise its commitment to animal welfare, as illustrated most recently, perhaps, by the decision of Defra ministers to retain responsibility for animal welfare while devolving responsibility for animal health matters to a new independent body (see VR, October 10, 2009, vol 165, pp 423-424). However, it also comes at a time when the idea that the Government should intervene in animal health, and indeed agriculture and food production, is rather less fashionable than it was. The recommendations will be of interest to everyone concerned with improving farm animal welfare, but it will be interesting to see how ministers, in particular, respond.

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