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Raising the standard for animal welfare

Small scale pig rearing in Kiambu district, Kenya
Small scale pig rearing in Kiambu district, Kenya

As avian flu continues to spread, concerns over slaughter standards are being raised as incidents of poultry being burned or buried alive have been observed in countries reporting outbreaks of the disease. As well as concern for the welfare of these birds, Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) warns that these inhumane methods pose a continued infection risk. "All governments need to commit to avian influenza management methods that are swift and efficient and humane in order to protect animal welfare, public health and worker safety," states Philip Lymbery, Chief Executive for CIWF.

Concern is not only directed at developing countries that lack resources and trained personnel to deal with the safe and effective destruction of birds. Despite some of the highest animal welfare legislation in the world, the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak in the UK resulted in many animals surviving for long periods after not being slaughtered humanely. And the 2003 avian flu outbreak in the Netherlands also led to significant suffering that could have been avoided, reports CIWF.

Aside from the current concern over welfare standards in disease control procedures, treatment of livestock is gaining attention worldwide as people take a greater interest in the living conditions of farm animals as well as the links between animal husbandry practices and the spread of disease. National governments are spending more time and money on animal welfare issues for two main reasons: to assure trade partners that their agricultural products are safe and to endeavour to meet the ethical standards expected for the international market.

Down on the farm?

Most farmers know intuitively that animals treated with sensitivity and allowed to perform natural behaviours are more productive. Being allowed to move and forage freely results in less stress and consequently higher productivity, enabling farmers to reap the maximum benefit from their animals. In developing countries, however, Joyce D'Silva, CIWF Ambassador says husbandry problems depend largely on whether animals are kept in traditional small-scale farms, or intensive large-scale farming systems. In smaller production systems, problems may stem from "poor animal health care and housing, lack of knowledge and a lack of resources to obtain veterinary advice and treatment."

Confinement, overcrowding, mutilations and inappropriate diets are associated with intensive farming in developing countries as in many factory farm systems globally, states D'Silva, but management and maintenance may also be poor, and electricity supply for automated systems can be erratic.

Animal welfare issues do not just rest with the farmer. Dr. Ian Duncan, a scientist at the University of Guelph, Canada, believes that during transportation and slaughter, animal welfare practices are often among their worst. "While on the truck, animals are often deprived of food and water, exposed to exhaust fumes and extremes of weather. They generally do not have sufficient room to adopt a good resting position and are subjected to sudden accelerating and braking forces," he says. "At the slaughterhouse, the animals are exposed to strange noises and smells, more social mixing and rough handling. Then the slaughtering process itself is not always humane." Duncan lists elective surgeries (such as tail docking and beak clipping) as the next most important animal welfare issues, followed by certain intensive husbandry procedures.

A step in the right direction

This donkey has been fitted with padded carrier to prevent back sores, a common cause of infection in donkeys in Ethiopia
This donkey has been fitted with padded carrier to prevent back sores, a common cause of infection in donkeys in Ethiopia

Recommendations for standards relating to transportation, humane slaughter and killing for disease control purposes have been drafted by the "Working Group on Animal Welfare" of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), which is responsible for advising and setting international animal health standards. OIE member countries recently voted in the first set of standards, which D'Silva believes is a real step in the right direction as it "provides opportunities for future improvement, as countries should now be adopting these standards." To assist in this process, CIWF is currently producing a "Good Agricultural Practice" (livestock) resource for colleges mainly in developing countries.

Raising public awareness is only half the battle; effective policies are required if husbandry standards are to be raised. These may take time to develop, but animal welfare advocates are encouraged that sow stalls, a production system that severely restricts movement of the animals, are soon to be banned in the Philippines. It is the only developing country currently taking such a step. China is in the process of creating and revising laws relating to livestock living conditions, slaughter and breeding, in order to prevent animal-related disease, but many feel that the laws are not nearly specific enough to be effective in improving welfare standards.

Encouraging sustainable farming, including organic methods of farming is, D'Silva believes, the most important factor in the improvement of animal welfare in developing countries. "These farms will be less environmentally damaging, use fewer imported resources such as fertilizers and pesticides, and will give animals a better quality of life," she notes. They are also likely to produce higher quality products and be eligible for niche export markets.

Written by: Treena Hein

Date published: May 2006


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