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Animal Welfare Issues and Initiatives: Consumer pressure is changing welfare practices worldwide

Consumer pressure changes welfare practices worldwide


January 23, 2008
By Treena Hein

Topics

How poultry welfare is currently defined, measured and monitored here
in Canada and around the world were just some of the topics addressed
at the National Farm Animal Care Council Conference held in Ottawa in
September.

 animalwelf
Dr. John Webster told NFACC attendees he believes animal welfare quality assurance programs must include easy-to- observe objective
measurements, ongoing monitoring and addressing of problems – and involve financial reward for the farmer.

How poultry welfare is currently defined, measured and monitored here in Canada and around the world were just some of the topics addressed at the National Farm Animal Care Council Conference held in Ottawa in September. 

Among the speakers was Dr. John Webster, who studies the quantification of animal welfare (AW) at University of Bristol, in England. He believes AW quality assurance programs must include easy-to-observe objective measurements, ongoing monitoring and addressing of problems – and involve financial reward for the farmer. 

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Gord Speksnijder, executive director of the Canadian Poultry Research Council (CPRC), says “The issue of a financial reward to the producer who meets various standards of improved animal welfare practice is one that certainly deserves further examination. Animal welfare is a societal issue and as such goes beyond the responsibility of individual producers and their families.”

Crystal Mackay, executive director of the Ontario Farm Animal Council and also a conference presenter, says “Webster has outlined all the components of a parallel program many people know very well that was actually pioneered here in Ontario – the Environmental Farm Plan. I believe all of those components make for a very solid program that shows definite and concrete improvements for the environment that can easily be transposed to animal care programs.” Mackay adds “These programs are in the early phases for animal care for a few species already, but are lacking the financial incentives to improve to date.  Improvements can still be made with education and evaluation, but large-scale changes will require some financial assistance.”

In a recent study of 25 free range laying hen units in England, Webster and his colleagues measured “attitude” (arousal, noise, flight distance and response to a novel object), activity (feather pecking, aggression and use of range), physical
welfare (mortality, body condition and egg quality). The study states that
“Each farm was visited on four occasions by one of five trained observers. Further information relating to husbandry, health and productivity was gathered from a structured interview with the farmers.” Estimated losses (deaths and culls) in the study birds averaged about seven per cent and only a very small number were observed with signs of ill health, limb lesions or red mite infestation.   

Webster and his team found a low correlation between pecking and feather loss “which implies that most of the feather pecking was of a non-aggressive, non-injurious nature.” They also concluded body condition, feather pecking and feather loss were all unaffected by the extent of beak trimming.

The team also found bird housing features or design had no significant effects on mortality. “There were however,” the team states “consistent differences in attitude, behaviour and performance attributable to floor type and the presence or absence of perches. Measures of attitude, behaviour and performance suggested that the welfare of the hens was inferior when housed on plastic floors with no perches.”

Dr. Christine Nicol, Webster’s colleague at the University of Bristol, studies laying hen housing systems, including free-range systems (large and small, organic and non-organic), indoor barn and furnished cages. She examines measures welfare in terms of physical health, non-invasive physiological indicators of stress (e.g., faecal corticosterone levels), unnatural behaviours, and post-mortem measures such as skeletal health at the end of lay.

Some of Nicol’s studies are funded through a project called LayWel, supported by the  European Research Programme (www.laywel.eu), which focuses on the welfare implications of changing laying hen production systems. In Laywel WorkPackage 7, Nicol’s team found that “with the exception of conventional battery cages, all systems have the potential to provide satisfactory welfare for laying hens. Conventional cages do not allow hens to fulfil behaviour priorities, preferences and needs for nesting, perching, foraging and dustbathing in particular. The severe spatial restriction also leads to disuse osteoporosis.”

They concluded that “these disadvantages outweigh the advantages of reduced parasitism, good hygiene and simpler management. The advantages can be matched by other systems that also enable a much fuller expression of normal behaviour.” They conclude this because “every individual hen is affected for the duration of the laying period by behavioural restriction. Most other advantages and disadvantages are much less certain and seldom affect all individuals to a similar degree.”

Nicol adds that “In more recent work we are tending to find that welfare is better in free-range than in indoor barn systems. Physical health is generally better in furnished cages, but free-range allows more behavioural freedom.”

In terms of actual monitoring poultry welfare standards on U.K. farms, Webster says 95 per cent of free range egg production is monitored by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ “Freedom Food Scheme.” He says, “Thus, the Free Range premium is conditional on compliance with Freedom Food standards as monitored by their inspectors and verified by us (University of Bristol).” In terms of broilers, Webster says, “Top-value supermarkets (Waitrose, Marks & Spencers) now market, I think exclusively, their own lines of slow-growing strains of broilers (fewer leg problems) and have their own welfare monitoring schemes.”

Mackay says “I believe Canadian poultry farmers and industry partners are well aware of the major factors in poultry welfare.  Some components of welfare have been quantified, such as lameness, and marked improvements in genetics are being made. Other components are much more difficult to measure and more research is definitely needed.”
 
Speksnijder, however, does not believe all of the issues in poultry welfare have been adequately identified and described. He says “Objective measures of bird welfare are lacking,” which would form the basis for “programs and guidelines for farmer self-assessment” and “[monitoring] of improvements regarding problems identified.” He adds “Perhaps just as important as identifying individual factors is examining the interaction among factors that effect bird welfare. Their interaction may be such that the end result is significantly more serious than the sum of the individual factors.”

In June 2006 the CPRC and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) hosted a workshop entitled Poultry Welfare Research in Canada. Speksnijder says, “Participants representing academe, industry and government met to review Canada’s current capacity for poultry welfare research, and to decide where future efforts should be directed.” Priority areas identified as requiring more research were: Methods of euthanasia and depopulation; transportation; beak trimming; relationship between productivity and bird welfare; effect of housing environment; aggression in male broiler breeders; feed restriction in broiler breeders; studies on pain, fear, frustration and emotional states; and the economic impact of improving poultry welfare. Issues requiring priority attention were “getting research into practice” and “co-ordination of effort across Canada.” Research projects based on these topics are being funded by CPRC, AAFC and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council in addition to other sources, with a funding total of $2.2 million. The expected project completion dates range from March 2009 to December 2010.

Speksnijder says conference participants recognized that the lack of national co-ordinated effort and collaboration could be remedied by having “a dedicated poultry welfare and behaviour specialist [who] could champion this effort and create a ‘virtual centre’ or cluster of poultry welfare research in Canada.” The University of Guelph was named by a selection committee with international representation as the institution most appropriate to host the cluster.

With regards to what poultry welfare research remains to be done in general, Webster says, “At present, I would suggest that the priorities are for genetic research to identify layer strains less prone to feather pecking and broiler strains less prone to leg problems.” Nicol agrees. “There needs to be a massive shift towards breeding stronger, healthier birds,” she says. “Many of the problems we see are because birds have been bred for maximum production to the detriment of their skeletal health. Selection could also reduce some behavioural problems noted in non-cage systems such as feather pecking.”
 
In terms of worldwide regulatory change, Webster believes "the market moves so much faster than the regulations." For example, “The European Commission will require small changes in cage design to improve minimal standards for laying hens from 2012. This is 47 years after the publication of the Brambell Report that first formally acknowledged the welfare problems of caged hens and called for changes.  Meanwhile, between 1995 and 2005, U.K. consumption of free-range eggs increased from below five per cent to over fifty per cent.”

Webster thinks most U.K. welfare assurance schemes are currently having little significant effect on welfare quality – considered by farmers to be simply “annual chores” – because “most are still based on box-ticking of elements of provision and give little attention to direct measurements of welfare.” He also credits a lack of real impact on the fact that “current systems do not identify, prioritise and review action plans for improved welfare” and “do not reward farmers for taking action.”

He suggests that to get the best progress and results, welfare programs should move slowly, involve farmer self-assessment, independent objective monitoring of outcomes with a concentration on major issues, an action plan for improvement which include rewards for farmers, and a reassessment afterwards to see if the improvement goals have been met.

The biggest factor in speeding up the process of having these things in place, according to Webster, is increased public demand for them. “It would be nice to think that this could be achieved simply by drawing attention to food produced to higher welfare standards” by such things as awards given out by the RSPCA. “In fact,” he notes, “public opinion is much more likely to be affected by aversion to perceived cruel (e.g. battery cages) or unfair practices.”  Nicol sees the 2012 EU ban on battery cages as the biggest factor that will affect industry action, but also points to “a good working relationship” that exists between scientists and industry in the U.K. as having an effect.

Speksnijder says that in Canada “a broad highway of communication between the industry and consumers must be developed. The issue of ‘Two Solitudes’ must be overcome.” 

Crystal Mackay says, “I definitely do not think poultry welfare concerns have been adequately described to consumers. They are definitely confused about what to believe. Most consumers get their information from the media. Special interest groups promote simplistic messages based on ‘free everything.’  At OFAC we’re working on this with resources like our Virtual Farm Tours on www.farmissues.com and information in the ‘Real Dirt on Farming’ booklet which explains farm animal housing isn’t that simple.”

Mackay stresses that “the best way to communicate with anyone who isn’t familiar with farming about poultry welfare is to start with explaining how important it is and how much you care. Typically farmers and industry people get into too much technical information and ‘how’ we do things, and we forget to explain ‘why.’  At OFAC, we approach explaining animal care with the honest answers to ‘here’s how and why it’s done, not everything is perfect or simple, and here’s what is being done to work on problems for the future.’”

Mackay considers the growing number of consumers who care enough to ask or look up information on finding out more about how birds are raised “our big opportunity” and “also our biggest challenge.”