Do farm assurance schemes provide a life worth living? - Veterinary Practice
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Do farm assurance schemes provide a life worth living?

Schemes in the UK are falling short of citizen expectations and the ambition to provide a “good life” for farm animals

It is often said that UK farming has the highest animal welfare standards in the world, and yet animal welfare is the top concern among many UK shoppers. Why are citizens concerned if British legislation on farm animal welfare is considered world class? And do assurance schemes guarantee that animal welfare principles are implemented on farms?

As it stands today, the ability to perform normal behaviours is considered a luxury for farm animals, featuring only in systems certified by premium schemes. Is this in line with our understanding of animal welfare science and emerging citizen expectations?

The term “consumer” is a very familiar word in food business. It describes shoppers as people with similar behaviours and drivers in their selection of supermarket produce, who are primarily interested in product consistency and price points.

TABLE 1 Spending on “ethical” food and drink in the UK between 2010 and 2017 (Ethical Consumer, 2018)

But things are changing – through a growing contingent of conscientious consumers who are wishing to create a more positive society by utilising their spending power to drive ethical food supply chains. As citizens, we don’t just want choice, we want roles in the reinvention and reshaping of our food system, and we are increasingly interested in the animal welfare standards behind the meat, milk and egg products that we buy.

Animal welfare is an increasingly important factor in purchasing decisions by citizens globally. According to surveys, around 70 percent of respondents in the UK, USA and Australia are concerned about farm animal welfare. We can
see from results of surveys by the Ethical Consumer and The Grocer that there is robust growth in ethical markets and that animal welfare is the top concern among many UK shoppers (see Table 1 and Figure 1). Another survey suggested that 72 percent of respondents in China considered farm animal welfare important, with 75 percent willing to pay more for higher welfare pork.

This “citizen shift” is translating in to purchasing decisions, evidenced by the cage-free egg movement seen in many countries across the world and an increase in the trend for less-but-better “flexitarian” diets.

FIGURE (1) Results of a survey of UK shoppers on their concerns regarding the impacts of meat consumption

Veterinary influence

Veterinary surgeons are key stakeholders in the world food system (Bonn et al., 2011). We are trusted advisors of our farming clients and largely considered by the public to be custodians of animal welfare. The BVA recognised that in order to fulfill these roles, we should be supporting citizens to make informed choices regarding farm animal welfare, but that few members of the public fully understand the food assurance labels that are designed to help them (Duffy et al., 2009). Therefore, the BVA devised an infographic to compare a number of UK assurance schemes in a simple-to-understand format, in terms of the BVA’s seven prioirity areas, including welfare at slaughter, use of antibiotics and measures to protect the environment.

The result is the chart in Figure 2, explaining the differences between the selected schemes. Most notably, this chart highlights the fact that all but two assurance schemes allow the confinement systems that prevent sows and laying hens from performing “normal behaviour”. In fact, the schemes that certify the majority of British animal produce allow confinement.

The five freedoms were formulated by the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) in the 1970s, and are now well recognised internationally. In accordance, UK legislation and farm assurance schemes have traditionally focused on limiting some of the negative aspects of welfare featured in the five freedoms. However, over time, our aims have shifted from not just alleviating negative experiences for animals in their farmed environments, but to facilitating the expression of positive psychological well-being.

FIGURE (2) The Choose Assured Infographic

FAWC recently proposed that the minimum standards of farm animal welfare should move beyond the assessment of the five freedoms to achieve a “life worth living” and, as an aspirational standard, introduced the concept of a “good life” in 2009. To experience a “life worth living”, animals should experience interest, comfort, pleasure and confidence (Mellor, 2016). Tho this end, animals on commercial farms can be provided with varied resources, such as bedding and foraging substrates, exercise areas and enrichment objects that they can choose (Edgar et al., 2013).

But most of the schemes featured in the BVA’s infographic allow the confinement systems that impede the normal behavioural repertoire of farrowing sows. Use of the farrowing crate for four to five weeks in the peripartutient period prevents foraging and nest making in farrowing sows which can lead to stress, frustration and stereotypic behaviours. To facilitate normal behaviours in pigs, and the opportunity to live a “life worth living” of “a good life”, we can provide them with a constant supply of manipulable materials and toys, fibrous foods, deep substrate for rooting and the space to move around in their environment and perform synchronous lying behaviours (Mullar et al., 2011).

Supporters of farrowing crate systems argue that this pen infrastructure was designed to reduce laid-on piglet mortality, and coupled with genetic selection of sows for litter size, represents a highly efficient pig production system. However, genetic selection for maternal behaviours (Andersen et al., 2005) and slightly smaller litter sizes of larger piglets can improve survivability of piglets in free-farrowing systems and can facilitate normal behaviours in commercial production.

Most of the schemes in the infographic allow the confinement systems that impede normal behavioural repertoire of laying hens. The laying hen is a distant relative of the red jungle fowl and they share the same behavioural repertoire, including roosting at night and foraging on the floor during the day. Hens that cannot perform these behaviours in commercial environments will suffer.

Use of the enriched colony cage for the productive lifetime of commercial hens impedes the performance of locomotion, exploring, dust bathing, foraging, wing flapping and stretching, which can lead them to “sham” behaviours and feather pecking. Caged systems also fail to provide a variety of resources that individuals can choose to use: for example, the provision of wholegrains and forage crops, complex structures to explore, a variety of dust baths and access to woodland. Therefore, the enriched cage is not compatible with our aim to provide “good life” opportunities for hens.

Opponents of free-range production argue that keel bone fractures and infectious diseases are often less prevalent in cage systems compared to cage-free environments. This argument supports the confinement of laying hens based on a limited repertoire of health outcomes. However, selecting robust laying hen genetics suitable for cage-free environments to reduce osteoporosis, and reviewing the design of house furniture to reduce keel bone fractures offer more sustainable solutions that tackle the root causes of the problems and optimise all welfare outcomes.

In summary, I believe that all assurance schemes with an animal welfare component should be putting into practice our long-held scientific understanding of animal welfare, embodied in the frameworks of the five freedoms and the “good life” – and should phase-out all confinement systems
to enable species-specific behavioural opportunities as a necessity, not a luxury. As vets, I believe it is time for us to be constructively critical about the systems deployed to farm the animals under our care, and support a shift towards those that generate balanced outcomes for all aspects of animal welfare, including physical health and psychological well-being. Because – as highlighted by the #ChooseAssured campaign – when it comes to facilitating normal, species-specific behaviours, the most prevalent standards for farm animal production in the UK are falling short of our ambition to provide a “good life” for all animals.


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What shoppers think about meat-free and plant-based, explained in 12 charts

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Updating Animal Welfare Thinking: Moving beyond the “Five Freedoms”towards “A Life Worth Living”. Animals, 6, 21.

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Laura Higham


Laura Higham, BVM&S, MSc, MRCVS, is a veterinary consultant at FAI Farms, PhD student at the University of Edinburgh and founder/director of Vet Sustain – the organisation championing sustainability in the veterinary professions.

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