Effect of Steps to Promote Higher Levels of Farm Animal Welfare across the EU: Societal versus Animal Scientists’ Perceptions.
Entrenching animal welfare standards into policy is often the result of a long legislative process. And evaluating the impact of these changes can take just as much effort. This study looks at the implementation of different animal welfare policies in the EU, and asks various stakeholders, from farmers to consumers, their opinions on how effective, efficient, and useful the different welfare measures are. The findings show that there is a delicate balance between what NGOs and consumers want, and that sometimes there is a disconnect between NGOs’ priorities and what consumers see as important issues.
Though animal welfare requirements for farmed animals have existed in the EU since the 1980s, the issue of introducing further regulation has been building momentum in recent years. The authors of this study state that “in practice, the multidimensionality of animal welfare has been incorporated in most recent EU policies. […] There are also private animal welfare standards and further initiatives, such as quality assurance, organic label schemes, and retailer schemes, that regulate on-farm, transport, and slaughter aspects of livestock production.” They note that civil society has played a huge role in the development of these standards, and that “there are many ways in which animal welfare can be improved, but decisions regarding which routes to follow should be made according to their expected impact on society, the livestock industry, and the animals themselves.” To better understand the process and what should be done, the researchers studied the EU’s EconWelfare project, an initiative that “aimed to present and analyze the appropriateness of different policy instruments towards higher animal welfare levels, taking into account the concerns of civil society, and the competitiveness of the livestock industry.” Their research investigated whether different “benefits offered by chain actors through welfare improvement schemes or legislation, address[ed] animals’ needs as described in the animal science literature,” and in this process consulted with stakeholders at various levels. “The purpose of this research,” they said, “is to contribute to the debate that surrounds animal welfare, and to provide valuable guidelines for policy makers to further improve it.”
With a good representation of different stakeholders, the researchers addressed a series of issues related to welfare, economics, supply chain, human health, and more. Perhaps most interesting for advocates, however, is that the findings show what seems to be a disconnect between what consumers desire and what NGOs aim for. In the researchers words, “the low number of issues that were considered as important by both consumers and NGOs is particularly remarkable. This might be due to the fact that, despite the great importance of animal welfare for both stakeholder groups, their practical knowledge of the actual issues is limited.” The researchers noted that in some countries the knowledge gap between NGOs and consumers of animal issues was smaller (like in Sweden), while in places like the Netherlands and Spain, the difference between what consumers considered important, and what NGOs were lobbying for was vast. Overall, the researchers noted that “it is not easy to disentangle how society perceives and understands animal welfare, with good examples showing how consumers associate, for instance, aspects relative to the processing of meat with improved on-farm welfare conditions.”
After a great deal of deliberation and analysis, the authors conclude, perhaps predictably, that “steps to improve animal welfare in the EU should be both animal- and system-oriented, and scientifically based. They should take into account species specific needs, but also society expectations in order to maximize the acceptation of animal products by consumers. In both cases there is a strong regional component.” It is important to note that the recommendations here place societies expectations, and the expectations of industry and economics, on equal footing. The authors say that “economic constraints are the most obvious explanation for this difference between what society offers, and what farm animals are likely to need for their own welfare.” For advocates, understanding this tension will help to appreciate the current legislative situation, and show what kind of subtle (and more dramatic) shifts can be made to improve welfare standards.
Information about animal welfare standards and initiatives from eight European countries was collected, grouped, and compared to EU welfare standards to detect those aspects beyond minimum welfare levels demanded by EU welfare legislation. Literature was reviewed to determine the scientific relevance of standards and initiatives, and those aspects going beyond minimum EU standards. Standards and initiatives were assessed to determine their strengths and weaknesses regarding animal welfare. Attitudes of stakeholders in the improvement of animal welfare were determined through a Policy Delphi exercise. Social perception of animal welfare, economic implications of upraising welfare levels, and differences between countries were considered. Literature review revealed that on-farm space allowance, climate control, and environmental enrichment are relevant for all animal categories. Experts’ assessment revealed that on-farm prevention of thermal stress, air quality, and races and passageways’ design were not sufficiently included. Stakeholders considered that housing conditions are particularly relevant regarding animal welfare, and that animal-based and farm-level indicators are fundamental to monitor the progress of animal welfare. The most notable differences between what society offers and what farm animals are likely to need are related to transportation and space availability, with economic constraints being the most plausible explanation.