The welfare of farm animals is recognised in the European Union (EU) as an important public and political issue. The links between humane farming methods and environmental sustainability have been well established. Nevertheless, the vast majority of farm animals in the western hemisphere are still kept indoors in highly intensive systems. The general public now question these rearing methods on grounds of food safety, quality, environmental protection and animal welfare.

Counting the cost

The current crisis in European agriculture is largely borne out of over intensification of farm animals and crops. The two are inseparable. When farm animals are taken from the land and housed permanently in large numbers and at high stocking densities – intensively – the system then needs intensive production of feedstuffs such as grains, grass and soya, grown elsewhere.

Europe is now counting the cost of its intensive farming methods. Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), or "Mad Cow Disease", resulted from turning natural herbivores – cattle – into carnivores by feeding meat and bone meal. Over 100 people have contracted the fatal human equivalent of BSE in the UK (FSA, 2001). By 1996, BSE had cost £288 million. When animal welfare is jeopardised, food safety is compromised (O'Brien, 1997). Food poisoning epidemics such as Salmonella and Campylobacter in eggs and poultry meat, cost the UK £350 million per year. In the USA, where livestock farming is often even more intensive, food poisoning is four times more common (FSA, 2000). The clean-up cost of Foot & Mouth Disease in the UK is estimated at US$30-60 billion (Roeder, 2001).

Populations of once familiar farmland birds, a key indicator of environmental integrity, have declined steeply. Previously common species have declined by 52-95% in the past 28 years (Gregory et al, 2001).

Farmers too have been disappearing and rural communities taken to the brink of collapse. Between 1946 and 1989, the total number of people working on farms in the UK declined from about 1 million to 285,000. In the USA, the decline has been even more staggering (Rowan et al, 1999).

Intensive agriculture in Europe and America has caused serious disease problems, a diminished environment, poor welfare in farm animals, and has threatened farming communities and rural livelihoods. There is now serious debate in Europe on charting a course toward a sustainable agricultural system, which to be successful, must also pay full regard to animal welfare.


The rise of factory farming & the reform movement

The latter half of the last century saw the rapid rise of factory farming systems in western Europe and the USA. These were characterised by large numbers of farm animals being caged or crated, and crammed into windowless sheds. Three classic factory farm methods epitomised this approach; veal crates for calves, stall and tether-cages for pregnant pigs, and battery cages for laying hens. All three of these classic systems of the 1960s are subject to far reaching reform in the European Union.

There has been an awakening in Europe to the fact that animals are sentient beings, capable of feeling pain and suffering. It has seen the European Union (EU) agree to outlaw veal crates for calves, battery cages for hens, and the prolonged use of sow stalls and tethers for pigs – three key areas of progress for animal welfare. During this period, the EU has also agreed a legally binding protocol that recognises animals as sentient beings rather than just "agricultural products".

However, factory farming in the 1980s and 90s has continued to expand in more insidious forms. Whilst legislation, fuelled by public opinion, is forcing the abandonment of cages and crates, factory farming has concentrated on intensifying its breeding and feeding regimes – making animals grow faster or produce more milk, with equally devastating consequences for the animals concerned. Broiler chickens that are crippled or suffer heart attacks before the age of 6 weeks, dairy cows with a metabolic system that can scarcely keep pace with their over-producing udders are just two examples. The new breed of factory farm has intensified the physiological strain put on the animals, whilst at the same time rearing animals in ever-larger group sizes and at high stocking densities.


The role of retailers

Supermarkets have enormous influence over the animal welfare standards used to produce the meat, milk and eggs they sell. The 10 biggest supermarket companies account for over 60% of all UK grocery sales. Supermarkets collectively represent the main conduit by which low-welfare animal products reach the general public. The dominant force of the major multiples and their consequent buying power means they can move quickly and decisively on food standards issues including animal welfare, perhaps more so than political decision-makers.

The vast majority of fresh animal produce in major supermarkets is sold under company own labels, where they have direct control over how the animals are reared and slaughtered (CIWF, 2002). Supermarkets have tremendous scope for promoting one product over another. Methods such as price promotions, labelling, in-store positioning and customer information, can all be used to promote ethically reared food. There is a growing recognition amongst major retailers that animal welfare is a key part of corporate responsibility. The aim of the 'Race to the Top' animal welfare indicators is to track supermarket progress and commitment on this area, and create an environment whereby supermarkets can play their full part in the drive to higher welfare standards for all farm animals.


Approach to animal welfare indicators

Encouraging Farming with High Welfare Potential

Major concerns for animal welfare arise from farm production methods with low welfare potential. These are systems that fail to meet the behavioural and physiological needs of the animals reared, such as the battery cage for hens, and therefore cause suffering. The 'Race to the Top' indicators of supermarket progress on-farm focuses on meat and egg sales coming from production systems with high welfare potential.

So what do we mean by the welfare potential of a farming system? From the outset, it is important to acknowledge that high levels of stockmanship and management are prerequisites in any successful animal farming operation. Nevertheless, the potential to achieve high standards of welfare is inescapably linked to, and limited by, the husbandry system employed. There are a number of factors, which affect the welfare potential of any method of livestock farming. These include:

The classic example of welfare potential is the battery cage for egg laying hens. The cramped and barren environment of the cage does not allow for the birds' behavioural and physiological needs. The birds suffer as a result (Appleby, 1991). The restrictive nature of the battery cage is an inherent part of the system. The battery cage is therefore a system with low welfare potential. No matter how much stockmanship and care you lavish on the birds in the system, their welfare will remain poor.

A free-range system, however - with its space and enriched environment - has a high welfare potential. Of course, if stockmanship levels are poor or neglectful, then the birds will suffer. But then, high standards of stockmanship should be an absolute must, not an option, in any farming system. Similarly, a badly designed unit could also negatively affect the birds' welfare. However, as the problems are not an inherent part of the system, they can be adjusted or improved. The point is, that any design or husbandry problems in these free-range-type systems can be ironed out, allowing the full welfare potential of the system to be achieved.

Organic farming as a land-based farming system without chemical fertilisers and pesticides; preventing disease through best practice animal husbandry, not drugs; in harmony with the environment, is a good example of an approach with high welfare potential.


Farming systems with low welfare potential

Examples of animal rearing systems with low welfare potential include:

Farming systems and practices that have low welfare potential, and therefore cause pain or suffering to farm animals, are ethically unacceptable. Broadly speaking, there is a spectrum of welfare potential. This goes from highly intensive systems at the low welfare end, (close confinement systems like battery cages for laying hens), through to less intensive indoor systems (e.g. barn egg production), to extensive outdoor systems, such as free range, at the high end of the spectrum.

The core 'Race to the Top'' animal welfare indicators are concerned with encouraging sales of meat and eggs from farming systems with high welfare potential.


Vision of the ‘perfect’ welfare-friendly supermarket

Race to the Top is encouraging supermarkets to progress toward a fairer and greener food system. The indicators constructed reflect the current state of progress in the retail industry. A fair question to ask is "what would the perfect welfare-friendly supermarket look like?" The following points form the essential elements to be included within any 'perfect 10' supermarket:

  1. All red meat, poultry meat, milk and eggs would be produced using well-managed, welfare-friendly systems (i.e. free range or organic). This would include 100% of fresh and processed produce. It would also include 100% of manufactured foods and ready made meals containing animal products as an ingredient. This 100% free range or organic requirement would include the company’s entire range of branded products as well as its own label range. No fish products would come from conventional intensive farms.
  2. All animals would be provided with bedding material such as straw (mammals) or litter (birds).
  3. None of the animals reared for the ‘perfect 10’ supermarket would have been subjected to mutilations such as tail docking, teeth clipping, debeaking or castration.
  4. No products from genetically engineered strains of animals would be accepted, nor those produced using GM production enhancers such as Bovine Somatotropin (BST) for dairy cows.
  5. No animals or meat would be sourced from livestock auction markets.
  6. Journey times for animals travelling to slaughter would be progressively reduced to the point where the norm is for animals to be slaughtered on the farm of rearing, or at the very least, the local abattoir.
  7. All animals would be slaughtered humanely using effective and instantaneous pre-slaughter stunning methods.
  8. No exotic animal products would be sold that are produced from essentially wild animals or those where production imposes severe welfare problems. Examples here include ostrich and emu meat, frogs’ legs and foie gras.
  9. The company should have a written animal welfare policy with targets that are actively reviewed on an annual basis.
  10. A main Board or Executive member should be appointed with specific responsibility for animal welfare. In addition, a dedicated animal welfare officer should be appointed to the staff to facilitate active implementation of the company’s animal welfare policy.


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