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Farm animal welfare - Seminar focuses on EU research into farm animal welfare




Recent food crises in Europe have undermined consumer confidence in the livestock industry. Consumers are increasingly concerned about where their food comes from and how it has been produced. In the case of animal produce, the way livestock are treated has an impact on animal health and food safety. It is this link, together with increased consumer concern, which has led the European Commission to support research into animal welfare.

On 23 April, the Commission hosted a seminar in Brussels on EC-funded farm animal welfare research. This was the first time scientists carrying out this research met with representatives of animal welfare and consumer groups to discuss how research can best contribute to shaping animal welfare and food safety policies. The seminar was opened by Bruno Hansen from the Research Directorate-General who outlined the research programme.

The Commission supports animal welfare research projects under the current (FP5) and previous Framework Programmes. Some 7.5m is spent on research projects directly related to the issue. The forthcoming Sixth Framework Programme will include animal welfare research as part of a policy-orientated approach. Animal welfare is also likely to have its place under the 'Food Quality and Safety' thematic priority as well as being open to support aimed at strengthening the European Research Area.

Alejandro Checchi Lang from the Health and Consumer Protection Directorate-General (SANCO) emphasised the open trade policy of the EU and described the Commission's efforts to set European food standards. He discussed the need to convince - and the difficulties involved in convincing - third parties to take animal welfare into account when setting international standards. In order to achieve this, it is important to have access to objective and reliable research results when drafting and negotiating EU food policy.

Network of stakeholders

How does the Commission interpret its obligation under the Amsterdam Treaty to ensure animal welfare? In future research, would it be better to look more globally at consumers, animals and environmental issues, notably in relation to existing policies as well as new ones? What is the best way to involve consumers? Does improving animal welfare necessarily increase the cost of production? These and other questions were addressed during a discussion session. Among a series of suggestions on how to answer these questions, the participants recommended the setting up of a broad European network of stakeholders in the field which could combine targeted, applied projects with more fundamental, generic research, so as to answer pressing questions quickly at the same time as laying the foundations for future policy.



Seminar on EC supported research in farm animal welfare: current work and future directions
23 April 2002
European Commission

Please click here to download a 32-page brochure on the seminar
(PDF file - 964 Kb).

For further information
contact John Claxton
European Commission
Research Directorate-General
Tel: +32 2 298 43 75


Research Projects

During the seminar, participants outlined their research results and identified EU requirements for future research.

Consumer concerns about animal welfare

One recently completed project examined consumer concern for animal welfare. Researchers found that consumers are concerned about the issue, although not as a priority. In the consumer's mind, high standards of animal welfare are associated with food quality and safety, which are seen as of high importance. It also emerged that consumers lack knowledge on production systems and, while wanting more information on animal welfare, tend to voluntarily ignore the realities of production and slaughter. Consumers expressed a willingness to pay more for improved animal welfare, although in reality this is rarely put into practice. Value-for-money determines consumer choice much more than concern for animal welfare.

Animal-friendly alternatives, organic farming

An important recommendation of an EC-funded project examining the many facets of livestock breeding and reproduction was to explore animal-friendly breeding alternatives in order to assess their economic and societal impact. Although organic farming is not an animal welfare scheme in itself, consumers tend to believe that it is more natural and, hence, better for animals. Is this true, however? Researchers discovered that organic farming allows animals to more easily express natural behaviour, provides more freedom of movement and a better physical environment. There is a need, however, to define when organic and welfare objectives conflict. There was little evidence that animals on organic farms were healthier than those on conventional ones.

Genetic and environmental factors

Scientists from the UK, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark spent three years investigating skeletal disorders in poultry. The results showed that osteoporosis in laying hens is heritable. The research team was able to select lines with stronger bones and a much lower frequency of bone fractures without diminishing egg production.

A project focusing on aggressive feather pecking in chickens discovered that this behaviour also has a genetic component. Feather pecking occurs when chickens peck and pull at the feathers of other birds. It can be a particular problem in production systems that are replacing the battery cage. Feather pecking can damage plumage, cause injury to the birds, result in a higher feed intake, and sometimes leads to cannibalism. Researchers discovered a cheap, low-tech environmental solution to this problem in the form of a plain polypropylene string. This simple solution can reduce the incidence of feather pecking drastically by encouraging preening behaviour aimed at the string rather than other birds.

Embryo technologies, such as specialised methods of in vitro fertilisation and cloning, may become precious tools for genetic improvement, but the resulting embryos often develop abnormally. A two-and-a-half-year EC-funded research project which aims to identify genes that are under- or overexpressed in cultured embryos, may have implications for human health in addition to shedding light on the causes of these anomalies in livestock.

Food, handling, transport

How do farmers' attitudes and behaviour affect animal welfare? Researchers from the Netherlands, Italy, France, the UK and Finland found that when farmers develop gentle contact with veal calves, the animals show less stress during transport, fewer problems at slaughter and produce higher quality meat. Another research team is using a combined laboratory and field approach to analyse how road transport affects cattle, with a view to minimising transport-induced stress. As well as the impact of facilities and journey time, this project is showing how important human factors (handling of the animals, driving of the vehicles) are on the welfare of the animals.