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Independent advice on welfare

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PUBLICATION of the latest annual review from the Farm Animal Welfare Council, covering the year 2009-2010,* is particularly timely, coming while Defra is undertaking a root-and-branch review of all of its arm's length bodies, of which the FAWC is one. Ministers have indicated that, unlike many other bodies, the FAWC is to survive the current round of reforms. This will come as something of a relief for those with an interest in farm animal welfare, particularly in view of the extent of some of the changes being made to other bodies.

The FAWC was, in fact, the subject of a separate review only last year, in accordance with Cabinet Office recommendations on non-departmental government bodies. Among other things, this found that 'FAWC's work is still needed. FAWC is the best organisation to undertake it, and it provides exceptional value for money'. It seems particularly important that the FAWC's work is allowed to continue at a time when the Government is looking at ways of cutting its own costs and sharing the responsibilities and costs for animal health with farmers, and when animal welfare has moved up the political agenda in the UK and internationally.

Established as an independent advisory body of government in 1979, the FAWC's terms of reference are 'to keep under review the welfare of farm animals on agricultural land, at market, in transit and at the place of slaughter; and to advise ministers in Defra and the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales of any legislative or other changes that may be necessary'. As constituted, it can investigate any topic falling within its remit and publish its advice independently. Over the past 30 years it has published well reasoned advice on a wide range of topics, including the welfare implications of new breeding technologies, stockmanship, slaughter without prior stunning and the welfare labelling of food. Not all of its recommendations have been accepted by governments over the years, although its advice has always been practical and characterised by a sense of what can actually be achieved.

Among points highlighted in the annual review is that the economic forces affecting the quality of life of farm animals are powerful, and that there are many vested interests in the food chain, which means that 'only the Government, including the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales, can be the true guardian of animal welfare'. Referring to the draft Animal Health Bill put forward for consultation by the previous government, which included proposals to establish a new body with responsibility for animal health, the annual review notes concern expressed by the FAWC that 'animal health and welfare policy should not be (and should not be perceived to be) separated to the extent that each was considered in isolation'. Similar concerns were expressed by the BVA at the time and it is to be hoped that the new government takes proper account of these when drawing up its own plans for sharing the responsibilities and costs of animal health.

The annual review also draws attention to the report 'Farm animal welfare in Great Britain: past, present and future', which was published by the FAWC last October (see VR, October 17, 2009, vol 165, p 451) and discussed by its chairman, Professor Christopher Wathes, in a Viewpoint article in Veterinary Record earlier this year (VR, April 10, 2010, vol 166, pp 468-469). Thirty-five years after Professor Roger Brambell produced his seminal report on farm animal welfare in 1965, the FAWC believes it is time to take efforts to improve animal welfare beyond the concepts enshrined in the Five Freedoms, which have formed the cornerstone for policy for more than 30 years. In seeking improvements, it suggests that the idea of what constitutes acceptable welfare should move beyond the current test of whether a farm animal suffers, there is unnecessary pain or distress or its needs are met, to a new standard of 'whether the animal has a life worth living or not, from its point of view'. As Professor Wathes remarks in his introduction to the annual review, 'This positive approach to animal welfare is a logical development in man's humane treatment of farm animals. It would be a damning indictment of government and commercial policies since Brambell's inquiry if the intention had not been to give each and every farm animal a life worth living.'

The concept of a 'life worth living' will be discussed at this year's BVA Congress, to be held in Glasgow from September 23 to 25, in a debate entitled 'Farm animal welfare – a veterinary priority?', which will consider the particular contribution that vets can make in this area (for details, visit www.bva.co.uk/BVA_Congress.aspx). In the meantime, as the Government presses ahead with its reforms, it is important that the FAWC should be allowed to continue to work effectively and that the independence of its advice is maintained.

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