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CONSUMERS should be educated from childhood about farm animal welfare issues so that, as adults, they can make informed choices when they purchase animal products.
So says the Farm Animal Welfare Committee (FAWC) in a recent report considering ‘Education, communication and knowledge application in relation to farm animal welfare’. The FAWC argues that it is the responsibility of animal keepers and consumers to have sufficient knowledge and understanding of the effects of their actions on farm animal welfare. Responsibility, it says, ‘ranges from a stockman's need for knowledge of physiology and behaviour to a consumer's decision to purchase eggs laid by hens kept in a particular husbandry system’.
The report, which was published on December 15, looks at education and communication in their widest sense, and is not limited to knowledge transfer to farmers. ‘It is based on the premise that the decisions that citizens make as adults are determined, in part, by the attitudes and moral perspectives that they acquire throughout childhood,’ the FAWC says. ‘If the informed consumer is to choose food of specific welfare provenance, then they will need to have been educated how (but not what) to think rationally and logically about their purchasing decision.’
The FAWC's vision is that everyone should be educated about farm animal welfare to give them sufficient knowledge and understanding of the impact of their actions on animal welfare, such that they can put this to good effect. It suggests that school pupils should be given an understanding of where food comes from, a basic knowledge of how farm animals are reared and an understanding of why animals are reared in these ways.
Turning to the education of vets and farmers, the FAWC says: ‘It seems clear that there is a particular need for veterinarians and farmers to receive a thorough education about farm animal welfare, for example, through formal training of veterinarians that leads to “day 1 competences” and informally “on the job” (as well as more formally through continuing professional development). On the job training has the advantage that it is “real”, ie, situated in the day-to-day realities of the job. However, if completely unstructured, and in the absence of opportunities for reflection, it may do no more than reinforce existing beliefs whether or not these are warranted.’
Communication is important throughout the food chain, the FAWC says, noting that there are numerous opportunities for information about farm animal welfare to be communicated, such as individual product information and labelling, corporate social responsibility statements and public information campaigns. It says that consumers should be able to compare the welfare provenance of meat and other animal products at either the product, brand or retailer level.
The committee argues that the absence of adequate information for consumers inevitably means that welfare is not a major factor influencing purchases, except for a minority of concerned buyers. However, it points out that farm animal welfare is becoming an increasingly important ethical concern for both citizens and consumers. ‘There is evidence of a growing demand for animal products from higher welfare production systems and, in certain instances, consumer avoidance of products derived from systems with poor welfare,’ it says, adding that meeting this demand requires information and communication.
The FAWC says that, although accredited assurance schemes exist, offering identifiable products from production methods operating to higher welfare standards than legal minimum requirements, many welfare claims presented to consumers are not comparable across all food sectors. It calls for clearer and more coherent definition of existing claims, but says that clarity is unlikely to be achieved unless these are legally defined. It recommends that, where marketing claims are used to imply that animals enjoy higher welfare standards, this should be demonstrated by welfare advantages over and above compliance with current minimum legal requirements for the whole of an animal's life. It also recommends that imported food products derived from animals reared in systems that do not meet minimum UK welfare requirements should be identified at the point of sale.
‘There often seems to be a gap between the generation of knowledge and its application,’ the FAWC says. It notes that those responsible for the lives of animals are faced with many sources of information, advice and knowledge and that there are many useful examples of knowledge exchange and knowledge-sharing initiatives. ‘Yet, in farm animal welfare, the pace and uptake of change is often slow, despite the demonstrable benefits of such changes to the animals concerned. There are, therefore, significant and persistent barriers to uptake.’
The committee identifies vets as being increasingly placed at the forefront of on-farm knowledge dissemination and practical advice, and says that for many livestock farmers, vets are an obvious source of advice on animal health and welfare. However, it comments: ‘It is difficult for the farming community to determine the merit of the animal welfare advice provided by different veterinary surgeons.’ It notes that vets also have a role in encouraging input from experts in a number of disciplines.
It recommends that, in association with government and the livestock industry, veterinary professional bodies should review the current and potential future role of vets in promoting the uptake of strategic and forward-looking welfare advice to farmers. Such a review, it says, should consider the responsibility and training of veterinarians in providing animal welfare advice. It also recommends that any reviews of the mechanisms and value of external scrutiny of the veterinary profession should include consideration of animal welfare expertise alongside any assessment of clinical competence.
■ ‘Education, communication and knowledge application in relation to farm animal welfare’, can be downloaded from www.defra.gov.uk/fawc/