Does Welfare Quality® Provide Quality Animal Welfare?
Founded in 2004, the Welfare Quality® (WQ) program was an effort to “facilitate a harmonized and effective implementation of assessment systems” for the measurement of animal welfare on farms of all kinds across the European continent. The idea was to conduct evaluations of animal welfare in a way that could be applied identically at farms, so that welfare could be measured at larger scales, across countries, and even between multiple countries, with consistency. Since the WQ project had such a broad scope and lofty goals, it could be seen as having set itself up for a fall. However, it’s clear that those involved were doing what they could to understand and evaluate animal welfare in the most broad and thorough way possible. This extensive collection of articles, concerning farm animal welfare and related issues originating from the Welfare Quality® Conference Proceedings in November 2005, gives an idea of just how big their undertaking was.
Since beginning days of the program, many studies have been published using the WQ protocols as a framework to evaluate animal welfare on farms across Europe. In the Faunalytics Research Library, we’ve covered a host of studies that use WQ assessments, and their results. Selections from our library include:
- A study on improving piglet survival, which found that the pig farms have an average piglet mortality rate of 20%, which could be lowered to 12% if piglets are bred from “high survival boars.”
- A study showing that a low level of knowledge about pig welfare at slaughter resulted in a lack of a standardized proper scoring scale for pigs at that time. The study also revealed an “unacceptably broad range” of percentages of pigs regaining consciousness after stunning: 0% at one slaughterhouse, all the way up to 90% at others.
- A study looking at streamlining WQ assessments of dairy cows, which ultimately found that “assessment protocols cannot be reliably reduced using statistical predictions,” but that “stakeholders [farmers] could conceivably be more likely to use the assessments if they required less time.”
- Another study looking to make WQ assessments more streamlined through routine herd data and cow welfare indicators, as a type of shortcut. In this case, the study found that “associations found at the animal level and in an experimental setting might not appear at the farm level and in common practice and should be investigated.” In other words, welfare issues in individuals may not be seen in the larger group, and so the efficiency of this technique is won at the expense of accuracy.
- A study on animal welfare, cost efficiency, and broiler chickens, which found that, since production costs are so crucial to the industry, and because the cost of converting to a mid-welfare level systems is relatively cheap, it delivered the most value for conventional farms. The study noted that a “middle-market” approach would allow farmers to change back to a conventional system at relatively little risk or cost, placing the focus on cost efficiency rather than animal welfare.
- A study assessing the welfare of beef cows, which found that two-thirds of cow farms achieved “Enhanced” level of welfare, but only 3% of farms were rated as “Excellent.”
- A study on cow feedlots and welfare which recommended that outdoor operations evaluate animal welfare based on three measures: panting score of cows in hot climates, cleanliness of the hide and legs of cows, and handling practices of workers.
The WQ program officially ended sometime around 2015, but the Welfare Quality Network remains in its place, providing a wealth of material for advocates and policy-makers to pore over. Rather than closing the program and tossing the results away, the researchers decided to develop the network as “a collaborative effort of a large group of former partners,” who recognized “the importance of retaining the collaboration and expertise established in the Welfare Quality® project.” According to the network there are currently 46 projects that use the WQ program as a basis for their work.
For our part, Faunalytics continues to look at studies that have used the Welfare Quality® project as a starting point and built on it, or critiqued it with the purpose of improving its welfare focus, as well as its outcomes. We’ve published a critique of the techno-ethics of the program, which found that focusing on consumer demand creates a situation where welfare advancements are fragile, and where “free range farmers’ knowledge and skills need to be constantly updated to implement animal welfare innovations.” In another case, we looked at a group of animal law scholars who created a model animal welfare act, which used WQ (as well as the Five Freedoms) as a basis. We’ve also looked at a new method of welfare measurement called the Unified Field Index, which “encompasses the principles and criteria of the European Union Welfare Quality program and incorporates three major perspectives related to animals (biological functioning, emotional states, and naturalness).” This method, according to the authors, enables farmers to aspire not only to pass a minimum threshold, but to improve their welfare results, wherever they fall on the scale.
For its huge scope and broad range of goals, the Welfare Quality® protocols, and the associated studies, were able to uncover some fairly serious animal welfare issues at farms across Europe. The macro level of focus of the program showed that many animal welfare problems in animal farming are widespread and not simply “bad apples,” but of course, by looking at issues on a macro level, some of the extremely important nuances of animal welfare are lost. As scholars and advocates continue to use the principles of the Welfare Quality® program to build new welfare assessment protocols, we hope that more attention is paid to individuals’ needs, as well as the larger issues experienced by masses of farmed animals. In the meantime, the WQ program, its offspring, and other programs like it, help to provide a big picture look at the issues for advocates to focus in on.