Cow Welfare Indicators From The Gate To Your Plate
This review assesses the availability of cow welfare indicators that are both valid (measure what they intend to measure) and feasible (easy to measure) (Table 1). To reach consumers’ tables, a typical cow’s last journey starts at the gate of the farm. They are moved into trucks and then transported by road to the slaughterhouse, where they will be unloaded to a waiting area, and finally move to the slaughter area. In every step of this journey, the cows will encounter different challenges that compromise their welfare.
There are plenty of studies (under controlled conditions and in the field) that demonstrate how handling farm animals is stressful for them, particularly if they have not had frequent contact with humans and if humans are not trained to handle animals. These stressful situations have a direct effect on their mental and physical states. Currently, government inspections at slaughterhouses are based on public health concerns and are usually carried out after the animals have been killed.
For the authors of this study, the primary aim was to identify simple and valid measurements related to cows’ physical and mental states, to be able to assess their welfare during this critical period of their lives.
The authors reviewed 85 published peer-reviewed studies to identify animal-based and product-quality based indicators related to cow welfare. They identify 72 individual indicators that were categorized based on what they measure: 22 Physiological (e.g. cortisol), 2 Morphometric (e.g. body condition score), 32 Behavioral (e.g. slips), and 15 Product Quality (e.g. bruises). Validity and feasibility of each indicator were categorized as high, intermediate or low. 85% of the reviewed studies were conducted in slaughterhouses or under commercial conditions.
Table 1. Characteristics of reviewed cow welfare indicators
|Validity||Validated in previous research through a large number of articles that provide internal (sampling, measures, procedures) and external (inferences) validity||Not necessarily indicative of poor welfare||Lack of evidence they actually assess welfare|
|Feasability||Could be recorded in abbatoirs regardless of the number of animals observed, the space available and the speed of the work carry out||Needs special requirements (e.g. extra space or time) for appropriate assessment||It could not be routinely assessed in comercial abbatoirs|
Of the 22 physiological indicators identified by the authors, only 16 are considered to have high validity and none were classified with high feasibility. In other words, none of the physiological indicators could be easily assessed during transport and slaughter, despite their high validity. Cortisol was one of the indicators frequently used to assess cow welfare, but there is controversy over this indicator as it can be affected by various external conditions.
Despite this, it could be possible in the future to measure variations in the physiology of the animals using body temperature, which changes due to different stressors, activity, or as a flight-or-fight response. Infrared thermography could measure the surface temperature of animals with minimal intervention while they are in the pens before slaughter.
Only one morphometric indicator could be easily used in slaughterhouses based on its high validity and feasibility. “Body condition score” subjectively measures the nutritional status of animals and could be used while they are disembarking or standing in the pens. However, it does not measure the present nutritional status and would be limited to providing past nutritional status (e.g. feeding status while on the farm).
From the behavioral category, 23 indicators were categorized as highly valid and easy to measure in the slaughterhouse. According to authors, these indicators can be used from unloading the animals from the truck at the slaughterhouse until they are slaughtered. Stressful experiences at any of the stages in between could affect how animals behave at the following stage. Loading and unloading are critical stages in the journey, subject to lots of stress mainly due to the lack of well-designed facilities, duration of the procedures, and human handling. During loading and unloading, recommended welfare indicators are falls, aggression/fighting, slips, jumps, reversals, mounting, and vocalization. All these indicators are related to the mental state of flight-or-fight in animals.
Handling by humans is also a major source of stress for cows. Animals that are difficult to move are more likely to be abused, so human-animal relationship (HAR) tests can be used to measure fear and are easy to carry out at slaughterhouses. The test assesses the reactions of the cows to three situations: to the presence of a stationary person, to a person in movement, and to management. The results are then used to assess slaughterhouse design, staff selection and training, staff attitude to animals and the emotional state of the animals. Poor quality of HAR can lead to problems in other stages of the animal’s journey.
As the global demand for meat continues to rise, there are severe consequences for animal welfare at the different stages of the supply chain. The authors here stressed the importance of identifying cow welfare indicators to assess that are both valid and easy to use at slaughterhouses. These could help to identify problems, improve conditions and handling at these critical stages in the animal production chain. Lastly, the authors note that the animal protein supply chain resources in developing countries are different and are sometimes deficient, particularly around infrastructure and personnel training.
This review provides insight into all of the areas that consumers tend to forget about when it comes to cow or farmed animal welfare. It is easy to think that the welfare of animals used for food only matters while they are on the farm. However, animal welfare considerations are important throughout the animals’ lives, including farm, transport, and slaughterhouse. Evaluating cow welfare and taking proper care of them from the minute they are born until their last breath is the very least that we should expect of meat producers.