The Unified Field Index: A New Tool To Measure Farmed Animal Welfare
Most forms of assessment and evaluation of farmed animal welfare are compliance-driven. As the results of such assessments are a pass or fail, a farmer’s focus necessarily rests on the minimal levels required to comply with policy, law, or regulatory standards. The authors of this article—who are also the developers of a new assessment tool—propose a different paradigm. They propose a paradigm that they believe is more appropriate in an era of growing consumer concern about the treatment and quality of life of farmed animals.
The designers have created an evaluation approach that provides a continuous scale from very low to very high. The assessment 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 enables farmers to aspire not only to pass a minimum threshold but also to improve their welfare results, wherever they fall on the scale.
In fact, the creators have embedded their assessment within a “Unified Field Index” that envisions not just a new kind of assessment of animal welfare, but also the opportunity for “benchmarking.” This refers to the gathering together of results from across the industry so that farmers can compare their results with each other. Such comparisons can lead—as they have in many other industries that have utilized benchmarking for decades—to those on the high end of the scale sharing best practices with those who want to improve their results.
The framework also includes tools that farmers can use to assess their welfare risks. They can identify the hazards that pose the biggest threats to their ability to ensure the safety and welfare of their animals (e.g., extreme heat); determine likelihoods and potential consequences; and plan how they will mitigate and monitor the threats. The authors also intend to publicize the data and best practices. This will add a further incentive for farmers to strive for improved results. And the aggregated results could lead to new or refined welfare standards.
The framework and tools are in the prototype stage. They are not yet implemented at any kind of scale. The authors suggest that implementation would be run more effectively by an industry body rather than a regulatory authority. This ownership by the industry and farmers themselves is what most sets this approach apart from conventional welfare assessments. The authors do not explore options for funding and management of such a program. And it is unclear whether any discussions on such options have begun.
Those concerned about the welfare of farmed animals would certainly jump at the chance to replace all-or-nothing and notoriously low-compliance thresholds with an aspirational set of assessment criteria. These would be accompanied by benchmarking, best practices, and tools for risk assessment and improvement—publicly available for all to see.
The work of these authors was funded by Australian meat, dairy, and egg associations along with several government agencies. This offers the tantalizing hope that implementation or at least broader piloting might be beginning there. It is harder to imagine that the powerful U.S. meat associations would share such motivation to move toward similar kinds of transparency and continuous improvement. It will likely take much more than the current level of consumer pressure to make such transitions happen.