Research promoting animal welfare
The European Commission has long been a supporter of animal welfare research. EU funding is used to support projects aimed at improving the welfare of animals on the farm and to develop alternative methods to experiments on animals.
Alternative testing technique using yeast
Improving conditions during transportation Every year, about 45 million cows, beef cattle and calves are transported inside the EU and a further 300 000 live cattle are exported to North Africa and the Middle East. The welfare of these animals during transit is important not only for ethical reasons but also because it can affect both the health of the animal and the eventual quality of the meat. The EU has put in place strict rules covering journey time, feeding and watering, and rest periods. To improve conditions on the road even further and to help policy-makers prepare future legislation in this area, the Union is supporting a three-year research project to assess the stress levels cattle suffer during transportation. Researchers are looking into the effects of journey length, truck vibrations, loading and unloading conditions, air quality, temperature and humidity, and road conditions.
Enhancing genetic selection in hens Farmers have been using selective breeding techniques to improve the quality of their livestock for centuries. Genetic selection, as the technique is known, is used to breed cows that produce more milk, pigs that produce more pork, and hens that lay more eggs. However, this kind of genetic manipulation can lead to severe animal welfare problems. In the case of hens, it can increase the chances of osteoporosis, causing painful bone fractures. Each year, over 65 million laying hens suffer bone fractures caused by this disease. Now a three-year EU-funded project has come up with a genetic solution to improve bone strength in laying hens by selecting genes for high bone density. Scientists have developed a ‘bone index’ as a tool for selecting lines with stronger bones and fewer fractures.
Consumer choice What impact has increased public concern about animal welfare had on the way we shop? Not much, according to a recent EU study. Researchers from the UK, Ireland, France, Italy and Germany found that even though consumers express a great concern for animal welfare and say they are willing to pay more for animal-friendly products, this is not translated into reality in the supermarket. The decision to buy products such as free-range eggs is driven by concerns about food quality and safety rather than animal welfare.
Pharmaceutical companies are constantly looking for new or improved compounds to develop drugs to treat neurological disorders such as epilepsy. Before such compounds can be used, however, they must undergo rigorous toxicity testing in the lab which often involves animals. Researchers in Germany, Denmark and the UK are collaborating in an EU project to devise a promising alternative testing method with the potential to replace the use of animals in the early identification of compounds with promising therapeutic value. The system uses yeast to analyse the reaction of a specific mammalian cell component to the substances being tested. Yeast is suitable because it has many genes that are similar to those in humans and it is easy to maintain and handle. Scientists are able to manipulate the yeast cell genetically so that it adopts the characteristics of a specific human membrane conductor. The new method is currently being used to test compounds to treat neurological diseases, although scientists believe its use could be extended to other conditions such as hypertension and deafness.
Boast for training About 15% of laboratory animals in Europe are used to test the quality, safety and effectiveness of vaccines. The testing methods are expensive and can be extremely painful for the animals. Significant progress has been made to develop alternative techniques and several of these have already been validated. To date, however, there is some reluctance by scientists to use these alternative tests, mainly due to a lack of information and training. Researchers from the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany have received EU funding for training courses and workshops to explain these new methods to scientists, the aim being to increase the uptake of these new cost- and time-effective techniques.
ECVAM – European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods EVCAM was set up by the European Commission in the 1990s to coordinate the development and validation of alternatives to animal testing methods. The Centre, which is part of the EU’s Joint Research Centre, organises regular workshops and task forces to review the current status of alternative tests and advises on promoting the integration of in vitro tests and other methods into the regulatory process. So far, three alternative methods have received ECVAM approval and a further ten are in the pipeline.