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Light touch on welfare?

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THE Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) is currently undergoing a ‘light touch’ review of its activities (see p 702 of this issue). The review is timely given the way that animal welfare has moved up the political agenda in recent years, both in the UK and internationally, and also in view of Defra’s proposals for a new body to oversee animal health in England (see VR, April 4, 2009, vol 164, pp 409, 410-411). However, it is important that this indeed turns out to be a light touch review. The FAWC has made a significant contribution in the field of farm animal welfare, and it is to be hoped it can continue to do so.

The FAWC was set up in 1979 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 the Government 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

With a membership that reflects a broad range of interests, including producers as well as veterinarians and others with a particular interest in animal welfare, it has, over the past 30 years, established a reputation for publishing well reasoned reports on pertinent topics, and of giving advice gently but firmly, in a way which is mindful of what can realistically be achieved. This kind of approach may not grab the headlines but, in a complex field where the arguments can all too easily be blurred by emotion, can be more effective in bringing about practical improvements in the longer term. In recent years, reports from the FAWC have been rather more forthright than previously, perhaps reflecting a more receptive industry and a better appreciation of animal welfare issues by society generally. Importantly, however, the FAWC does not overstate its case and the emphasis remains on achieving genuine improvements.

The latest report from the FAWC, which was published last week, deals with the welfare of poultry and other ‘white meat’ species at slaughter or killing. It is not just concerned with the welfare of birds at the point of slaughter, but also considers their experiences during catching and loading on the farm, the journey to the slaughterhouse, the wait in the lairage, unloading from transport containers and stunning (see pp 702-703 of this issue). Other topics recently addressed by the FAWC include the welfare of farmed gamebirds (VR, November 22, 2008, vol 163, p 609), tail docking and castration of lambs (VR, July 19, 2008, vol 163, p 62) and the animal welfare labelling of foods (VR, June 24, 2006, vol 158, pp 842-843). A recurring theme in many of its reports is the importance of good stockmanship, which the FAWC has described as the single most important influence on the welfare of farm animals. It has also produced a specific report on welfare and stockmanship, which remains highly relevant (see VR, June 16, 2007, vol 160, p 813).

Questions being asked in the current review include ‘Is the work that FAWC does still needed?’ and ‘If it is, is FAWC the best organisation to undertake it?’ On the evidence so far, the answer to both of these questions would appear to be ‘yes’, although there is clearly also an opportunity for other organisations to play a constructive role in drawing attention to issues of welfare concern (see the report of the recent BVA Animal Welfare Foundation discussion forum on pp 705-707 of this issue). The answer to another question - about how the FAWC might be affected by Defra’s proposals to establish a new semi-autonomous body to oversee animal health - is that the need for sound, independent advice on animal welfare matters will, if anything, increase. Under these proposals, which have been developed as part of the Government’s agenda on responsibility and cost sharing, responsibility for animal health would be transferred to the new body while responsibility for animal welfare would remain within Defra. The proposed separation of health and welfare is illogical, and continues to cause concern.

Giving advice is one thing; whether it is acted on is another. Not all of the recommendations made by the FAWC over the years have been accepted by the Government, such as recommendations concerning slaughter without prior stunning (VR, March 19, 2005, vol 156, pp 362-363) and a recommendation that a standing committee should be established to evaluate new and existing animal breeding technologies (VR, August 4, 2007, vol 161, p 145). The FAWC’s reports are not just aimed at the Government, and it is not just for the Government to act on them. However, the extent to which the Government has taken forward the recommendations of its advisory body could be well worth reviewing in its own right.

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