Happier animals for happier consumers

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WELFARE QUALITY
Surveys show that Europeans are becoming more and more concerned about the welfare of the animals that end up on our plates. Furthermore, people are increasingly aware that raising farm animals in good conditions contributes to the quality of food products.

Now the WELFARE QUALITY project is responding to consumers’ wishes by developing tools to assess the animal welfare status of a range of farmed animals and make this information available to consumers.

It brings together 44 partners from 17 countries, including 13 EU Member States. The partners include scientists specialising in animal science and behaviour, sociology and philosophy as well as experts from the fields of farming and genetics.

The project has already shed new light on consumer attitudes to animal welfare and is developing detailed strategies to improve farm animals’ quality of life. It also aims to develop easily understandable product information systems, so that consumers interested in the welfare of farm animals can make an informed choice about what they buy.

The researchers do not restrict their activities to the farm; for example they are investigating animal welfare issues at slaughterhouses. They are also working closely with stakeholders from all stages of the food chain, including farmers, processors, retailers, the food service sector, academia, government authorities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Furthermore, the participation of project partners from countries as diverse as Brazil, Mexico, Chile and Uruguay will ensure that European farm animals will not be the only ones to benefit from the project.

To advance the aims of the project, the European Animal Welfare Platform was established. This brings together a wide range of stakeholders in the food industry and is committed to improving farm animal welfare and supporting the implementation of the WELFARE QUALITY findings.

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A new tool for assessing animal welfare

The project’s overarching goal was to create practical, standardised methods for assessing farm animal welfare on the farm and elsewhere, for example at slaughter. Biologists and social scientists agreed on a common approach based on four key principles: good feeding (no hunger, no thirst); good housing (comfort, temperature, ease of movement); good health (absence of injuries and disease as well as absence of pain from animal management procedures); and appropriate behaviour (expression of social and other behaviours, good human-animal relationships, absence of fear).

To address each of these principles, animal based measures have been designed specifically for different species and categories of animal: for sows and piglets, fattening pigs, dairy cows, beef cattle, dairy heifers and calves, veal calves, laying hens, broiler chickens and buffalo.

The assessment measures have already been checked for validity, reliability and practicality, and are being tested in real life situations on 600 farms and at 60 slaughterhouses across Europe.

The tools are designed so that the outcomes can be used by a wide range of people. Product chains can use the system to inform consumers. Farmers and processors can use them as a self-assessment tool to identify potential welfare risks and problems. Researchers can also use them to compare the welfare of animals living in different conditions.

Improving quality of life for Europe’s farm animals

The partners are also looking at practical ways of improving the lives of Europe’s farm animals. For example, up to 30 % of chickens reared for meat production suffer from joint and bone problems brought on by their fast rate of growth when they are very young. WELFARE QUALITY developed a special dietary regime under which birds grow more slowly during the first few weeks of life then develop faster once their bones have developed. This reduced lameness while bringing the birds up to standard slaughter weight in the same number of feeding days.

What do consumers want?

Another strand of the project is investigating consumers’ opinions on and knowledge of animal welfare, as well as how these influence their buying habits. The researchers carried out surveys in France, Hungary, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the UK. While the results varied from one country to another, a clear majority claimed that animal welfare issues were either important or very important to them.

However, this does not always influence their shopping behaviour. While over 80 % of Hungarian respondents considered animal welfare to be important, only a third of them actually thought of it when buying beef. Other respondents claimed that they simply found it too time consuming to find ‘animal friendly’ products.

Most of those interviewed felt that labelling was a useful source of information on the animal welfare aspects of food products, but many seemed unwilling to find out about the conditions in which the animals were reared. Others felt that responsibility for animal welfare lay with farmers and government rather than consumers.

These findings provide useful insights into consumer opinion and contribute to the development of the project’s product information system. This system could use stars or colours to help purchasers easily identify animal friendly products.

Pressure from concerned consumers has already led to dramatic improvements in the living conditions of Europe’s farm animals. Thanks to WELFARE QUALITY, farm animals both in Europe and the rest of the world can look forward to the prospect of further improvements in their welfare. Improved welfare brings clear benefits not only for the animals, but also for farmers and consumers.