Certification Programs Should Incorporate Positive Welfare
Welfare certification schemes aim to reassure consumers that the animals we eat were raised humanely. Animal advocates know these schemes are imperfect, and currently, welfare certification focuses on reducing harms for farmed animals, rather than on opening up the possibility for a good life. This limited approach runs counter to research showing that good welfare is not only the absence of negatives, but also the presence of positives – think of the gulf between what we think of as surviving compared to flourishing.
To begin addressing the gap, this study explores whether creating positive experiences for farmed animals makes sense, both economically and scientifically. Researchers looked at non-caged laying hens in 49 farms across the U.K., all certified by either the RSPCA or the Soil Association. Experienced assessors visited the farms and observed the hens’ welfare based on thirteen inputs (e.g. dustbathing, nesting, enrichment) and six outcomes (e.g. behavior, beak-trimming, mortality).
For each input, farms were scored from 0 to 3. In this scoring system, 0 represented no score; 1 represented welfare +; 2 represented welfare ++; and 3 represented welfare +++. A score above 0 goes beyond what is required. The maximum possible score under this system was 39. Outcomes were variously assessed using numerical scoring systems and QBA (a framework to assess how animals feel) based on a 5-minute observation of the flocks.
With respect to inputs, the study found that over half (63%) of scores were at least 1 out of 3 (i.e. welfare +). Numbers varied depending on the resource: 96% of farms scored at least welfare + on social experiences, compared to only 18% for cognitive enrichment. The average total score across all farms and resources was 12.6 out of 39.
Turning to outcomes, the study found that three-quarters of farms trimmed the hens’ beaks, routinely practiced before the birds are 10 days old. Assessors described over half of the flocks (63%) as calm. Just over a third of farms (35%) provided completely dry litter, compared to 29% of farms where litter was mostly wet, i.e. in poor condition.
Next, the study brought together inputs and outcomes, analyzing the correlations between the scores on each. Their analysis suggested that litter condition might be useful as an indication of overall welfare. They also found a positive correlation between a flock’s mood and the resources available to the hens.
The final section of the study was an economic analysis. Here, their results suggested that it would cost less than 0.05 GBP per dozen eggs to provide some positive experiences for farmed hens. Combined with the study’s finding that 63% of welfare-certified farmers go beyond the basic requirements to provide positive welfare, it seems that there’s some low-hanging fruit in terms of welfare improvements. Not only would it be cost-effective, but farmers would also likely be on board.
Given their findings, the authors also suggest that rewarding good welfare may be a better policy model than penalizing bad welfare. As an example of this model, they point to the proposed U.K. Agriculture Bill, which suggests that animal welfare should be counted as a public good, and farmers compensated accordingly.
In addition to informing certification schemes and broader policy, the results of this article remind us not to get too black and white. As animal advocates, we might fall into the trap of viewing those who farm animals as the outright villains of the story — but the number of farmers who voluntarily maintain a higher standard of welfare paints a more complex picture. As we seek to understand how we can best protect animals, we need to consider the issue from the farmer’s perspective, and work with them where possible to improve conditions as we also work to reduce and eliminate consumption.