Food safety has been an issue of major public concern in Europe since the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) – or ‘mad cow’ disease – crisis. But the food on their plate is not the only thing that worries Europeans. Citizens want to know more about the conditions in which animals are kept and, in particular, their well-being. This is where the Welfare Quality project comes in. The environment in which the animals are kept, their diet, health and even genetics are all factors being examined by the various working groups. The first task of the partners, however, has been to agree on what this complex notion of welfare actually means. Their ultimate aim is to develop a harmonised set of animal welfare criteria that could be applied throughout the EU.
Isn’t animal welfare a side issue, the obsession of a few animal rights groups? No, not according to Harry Blokhuis. This researcher from the Animal Sciences Group at Wageningen University and Research Centre (NL) and member of the European Food Safety Authority’s Scientific Panel on Animal Health and Welfare, believes that: “There is every indication that animal welfare is becoming a concern for all Europeans, even if it is north-western Europe that remains at the forefront on these issues”. As proof, one can cite the Eurobarometer 2005 surveys (see box), the growing ranks of NGOs devoted to animal welfare, the Action Plan on the Protection and Welfare of Animals launched by the Commission at the beginning of 2006 (see box) and the evident interest in the issue on the part of major agri-foodstuffs companies.
Blokhuis, whose expertise extends to most types of animal husbandry, has been coordinating the Welfare Quality project for the past two years. No fewer than 40 institutions in 13 countries are working on this project that receives €14.4 million in EU funding. Its aim is to rationalise and unify approaches and practices relating to animal welfare by 2009.
Rousing the beast An obvious question is why there is suddenly interest in a subject that has attracted little public attention for many years. The answer lies in the numerous food safety scares over the past decade, many of them calling into question farming practices. The major turning point was, no doubt, the BSE or mad cow disease crisis in 1996 and the aftershocks that were felt over several years. But there have also been outbreaks of contamination by coliforms (enterobacteria that ferment lactose) which were particularly serious in Norway, dioxin poisoning in France and Belgium, foot-and-mouth disease and, most recently, bird flu.
"Livestock farming has become much more intensive since the 1950s,” stresses Blokhuis. “The farms have become bigger, automation has become very advanced and sophisticated, and productivity has soared. But these developments occurred out of view of the public who were generally unaware of how the animals they ate had been reared. This series of crises had the effect of showing them the reality. Now they want to have their say about what they buy – and, indirectly, about the way that farm animals live.”
Apportioning responsibility While there is tangible evidence of this new awareness just about everywhere, views on the issue and how to approach it vary considerably from one country to the next. Europeans see their responsibilities and scope for action in this field very differently. Unni Kjaerness, of the National Institute for Research on the Consumer (NO), is one of a group of sociologists who studied these opinions within the Welfare Quality project. Researchers conducted telephone interviews with large samples of citizens: 1 400 for each of the seven countries selected for the study (France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom).
“Three principal attitudes were discerned,” explains the researcher. ”An attitude that could be described as Scandinavian saw welfare as an important problem but one on which it is difficult to act as a consumer, it being primarily a matter for government and requiring a political solution. The second view – held principally in the UK and the Netherlands but to which the French now seem to be rallying in increasing numbers – is that these are market-related issues and, therefore, the consumer plays a key role. Finally, there is the southern view, also held in Hungary, that while animal welfare is no doubt worthy of interest, it is part of a more general context concerning food quality, safety, origin, etc.”
Transparent labelling While this diversity owes much to cultural or historical differences, it also reflects differences in the markets, if only on the important matter of product labelling. “Our research at large stores and supermarkets showed us that there are very many labels and other designations that give an indication of certain notions linked to the living conditions of animals. But, generally speaking, animal welfare is grouped together with other notions, such as the quality of the environment (reared out of doors, for example), origin, etc. All this leads to confusion for the consumer. In fact, it is only the British who have a specific label devoted exclusively to animal welfare.”
The public also complains about the lack of transparency – 51% of Europeans claim they are never or very rarely able to identify products that come from animal-friendly systems. This uncertain situation is not helped by the fact that, although some producers have made an effort and introduced welfare improvement procedures, this information does not appear on the products but only on the retailers’ websites.
One of Welfare Quality’s aims is to reduce this confusion. To do so, the first step was to arrive at a satisfactory and scientific evaluation of animal welfare. This is not as easy as one may imagine. Consider the case of strong healthy cattle that are packed full of antibiotics, for example. And is it better to be an animal kept out of doors, exposed to extremes of cold and heat and even to certain predators, or one housed in a closed building?
“As the project celebrates its second birthday, I believe we have succeeded in agreeing on a common philosophy,” says Blokhuis who is pleased to have reached a consensus among some 150 scientists on such a complex subject. “We have drawn up a list of criteria in four principal categories: diet (sufficiently nutritious, availability of water, etc.), comfort (available space, quality of the floor, etc.), ability to show natural behaviour (walking, foraging, pecking), and health (absence of wounds, lameness, etc.). By combining these criteria, we are going to develop a measurement system that will give us a welfare value (e.g. excellent, average or poor) for a farm – and it will then be for society to decide what is acceptable and what is not. That is a decision for the whole of society and not just for scientists.”
Universal standards Much work still remains to be done in this field. The ultimate goal, as summed up by the project coordinator, is “to have a methodology that makes it possible to award, in just a few hours, an indisputable animal welfare rating that would be valid from Greece to Finland”. The criteria chosen must, therefore, be checked to ensure they are reliable, reproducible, significant, and practical. This is why, explains Linda Keeling of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, “the first version of our monitoring plan will include more measures than are strictly necessary, so as to be able ultimately to adopt the most effective, reliable and practical combination”.
Many evaluation systems designed to date have been based principally on environmental features, such as temperature, available space and size of group. These factors have their importance but they provide more of a risk assessment for the animals than information about their actual condition. The measures developed by the Welfare Quality researchers will be largely based on the animals themselves, considered as the best indicators of their well-being. This will involve, for example, examinations for the absence of injury, of body condition, and of behaviour (timidity and harmfulness), as well as an analysis of the carcass for signs of wounding, bone fractures and other injuries. The next stage will be to make this information available to the consumer in a manner that is easy to understand. Although nothing has been decided yet, this could be in the form of a system of stars, as is used in the hotel and catering sector.
"In reality, efforts to promote animal welfare are inextricably linked to improvements in quality and that is a concern for the entire production chain,” concludes Blokhuis. There are also, of course, many facets to quality. But the perception of the purchaser, although sometimes very subjective, also plays a major role. Double-blind tests, for example, show that it is almost impossible to taste the difference between eggs produced by battery hens and free-range eggs. “At a certain level, ethics and quality come together. For instance, do you want to buy a pair of shoes that you know have been made using child labour? It is perfectly legitimate to aspire to eat food that comes from an animal that has not suffered. Our work aims to make that possible.”
Lamecow: lameness in dairy herds
The tendency to lameness, due to inflammation of the hoof, is widespread in dairy herds and one of the major welfare problems throughout Europe. In addition to the work of the Welfare Quality project, other European teams are active in this field, most notably within the Lamecow project. Coordinated ...
Three positive points
1. Consumers: a responsible sensitivity According to the Eurobarometer 2005 survey, European consumers are not only sensitive to animal welfare but are prepared to pay more to see it improved. Of those Europeans polled, 57% said they would be willing to pay more for their eggs if that could ...
The tendency to lameness, due to inflammation of the hoof, is widespread in dairy herds and one of the major welfare problems throughout Europe. In addition to the work of the Welfare Quality project, other European teams are active in this field, most notably within the Lamecow project. Coordinated by Jes Scaife of Writtle College in the UK, eight partners from five countries – United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, Sweden, and Poland – are working on this two-year-old project.
The most common types of lesions among dairy cows.
To combat this multifaceted disease caused by both genetic factors and elements in the immediate environment, researchers are pursuing a number of lines of inquiry. On the one hand, they are seeking to build computer models of the bovine hooves and phalanges, reproducing their characteristics and development in both their healthy and pathogenic form. On the other, they are developing in vitro techniques for the culture of the tissue involved, in particular to study the spread of inflammation and the effect of different biological mediators on dermal and epidermal tissue. Finally, they will start to trace the link with everyday farming practices to identify those elements – treatment, handling, environment, etc. – most connected with the appearance of the pathology. The ultimate goal is to produce a good practice guide and encourage training for farmers.
Harry Blokhuis, coordinator of the Welfare Quality project, has also just launched the Animal Welfare Platform through which the different stakeholders can express their points of view.
According to the Eurobarometer 2005 survey, European consumers are not only sensitive to animal welfare but are prepared to pay more to see it improved. Of those Europeans polled, 57% said they would be willing to pay more for their eggs if that could improve the living conditions of the hens. In fact, chickens are seen as the farm animal with the worst living conditions. More than half of respondents also said that national agricultural policy failed to take sufficient account of animal welfare (just 7% felt the opposite).
2. Industry: a pragmatic ear Many major players from industry are interested in animal welfare issues. They believe that consumer concerns in this field are something to be taken seriously and not a passing fad. Consequently, in the United States, both McDonald’s and Burger King, the two principal fast-food chains, have given undertakings. In Europe, the Animal Welfare Platform, recently set up by Harry Blokhuis, is seeking to organise an exchange of opinions between scientists, NGOs, producers and industry which has expressed particular interest, most notably such major companies as Dean Foods of the UK (5 million laying hens), McDonald’s Europe, and the Italian chain of motorway restaurants Autogrill.
3. European Union: an action plan In January 2006, the EU announced the adoption of an action plan designed to improve the protection and welfare of animals. This includes a series of measures ranging from farming practices to the international protection of animals and includes a research effort aimed at developing alternatives to animal testing. The progressive introduction of standardised indicators, such as those of the Welfare Quality project, should make a valuable contribution to this. In addition, the EU has undertaken to argue for increased attention to animal welfare within the WTO, alongside other international organisations, such as the World Organisation on Animal Health (OIE).