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Encouraging signs

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THE story turned out not to have a happy ending and the prognosis didn’t look good from the start. Nevertheless, there is something vaguely reassuring about the extent to which the appearance of a bottlenosed whale in the River Thames last weekend captured the public’s imagination. Cynics might suggest that there wasn’t much else for the media to report last weekend, but this was not the case. The incident served to illustrate a fundamental fascination with animals and nature which, with all the other distractions available in the 21st century, is all too easy to forget. It is to be hoped that the incident increases awareness of wildlife conservation issues, and that this interest is sustained long after the media coverage dies down.

A degree of reassurance can be gained, too, from developments in the field of animal welfare, which seems to have a higher profile these days, both in the public’s mind and politically. This is not just happening in the UK, where the Animal Welfare Bill is currently making its way through Parliament. At the end of last year, the European Commission published the results of an EU-wide consultation on attitudes to animal welfare, which, it reported, highlighted ‘the strong interest and concerns of the public on this subject’. Among the findings were that citizens believed that more should be done to ensure the protection and welfare of farm animals, and that imported food products should be produced under animal welfare conditions at least as good as those in Europe. The Commission reported that there was strong support for better labelling on the animal welfare conditions under which products were obtained, and that a majority of respondents believed that higher animal welfare standards could result in better animal health and more ethically acceptable food products (VR, January 14, 2006, vol 158, p 35). If a majority of citizens could also be persuaded to pay the higher costs of foods produced to better welfare standards, then real progress could be made.

At the political level, there was an important development earlier this week when the European Commission adopted a five-year action plan on the protection and welfare of animals (see p 111 of this issue). In the words of the Commission, this outlines ‘concrete measures’ aimed at ensuring that animal welfare is addressed in ‘the most effective manner possible in the coming years, in all EU sectors and through EU relations with Third countries’ (that is, countries outside the EU). The impact of the plan will obviously depend on how well it is implemented. Nevertheless, this is a welcome development that could help to create the ‘level playing field’ that those already producing foods to high animal welfare standards in Europe have long sought to attain.

The European plan identifies five main areas for action between 2006 and 2010: upgrading minimum standards for animal welfare; promoting research and alternative approaches to animal testing; introducing standardised indicators of animal welfare; providing animal handlers and the public with better information on animal welfare issues; and supporting international initiatives for the protection of animals. Specific actions include: a proposal to update current legislation on the inspection of farms; work to establish a European centre/laboratory for animal welfare and a Community Reference Laboratory for the validation of alternative testing methods; a revision of existing rules on animal welfare at the time of slaughter and killing for disease control purposes; and the possible establishment of a European Quality Standard for products produced to high animal welfare standards.

Measures taken in relation to animal welfare must be based on solid science, and the Commission states that, where information is lacking, research should be prioritised to fill the gap. In advocating standardised indicators for animal welfare, it points out that this would level the playing field for producers while responding to growing market demands for evidence of sustainably derived products. It also notes that a clear EU label for animal welfare would allow for better promotion of products that have been produced in line with animal welfare requirements, and differentiation between those which meet minimum requirements and those produced to higher standards. This, it points out, would provide a mechanism for improving animal welfare generally.

International food markets are highly complex, and practical and political problems abound. Nevertheless, the arguments being propounded by the Commission are fundamentally sound. This kind of approach has long been advocated by the UK’s Farm Animal Welfare Council (see, for example, VR, July 16, 2005, vol 157, p 65), and it is good to see it being adopted more widely, particularly as the action plan foresees continued EU support for initiatives aimed at raising standards of animal welfare worldwide.

A higher profile for animal welfare and conservation of endangered wildlife is good news for the veterinary profession, which clearly has an interest in both areas. It provides scope for greater involvement, at a practical level and politically.

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