Welfare of Farm Animals a Growing Concern

September 17, 1997

Welfare of Farm Animals a Growing Concern

Concern for the welfare of farm animals is mounting in the United States. And scientific study of the indicators of their welfare is overdue according to a new task force report, The Well-Being of Agricultural Animals. The report was released by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST), a consortium of 34 professional scientific societies.

Dr. Stanley E. Curtis, professor of Animal Sciences at The Pennsylvania State University and cochair of the report, admits that scientific ignorance about the topic is widespread. "Assessing well-being in animals is a very complex undertaking," he explains. "Perhaps understandably, agreement hasn't been reached yet on the most appropriate approaches to scientifically assessing it. And there still is no consensus on what the meaningful indicators are. Obviously, without knowing what indicates animal well-being, it's hard to make prudent change in husbandry procedures."

Although many of the issues of agricultural animal welfare probably will be resolved politically, the CAST task force recommends that scientists become involved in clarifying the issue for policy makers and notes that animal scientists, farmers, and business people generally agree on how to prioritize the research questions.

Animal well-being issues needing further study were identified by the Food Animal Integrated Research (FAIR) '95 conference, a meeting of individuals involved in many different facets of agricultural production and processing. The conference was sponsored by the Federation of American Societies of Food Animal Sciences.

Research areas identified included (1) how to resolve concerns about bioethics and other controversial issues, (2) how individual animals respond to the production environment and to stress, (3) what their social behavior and space requirements are, (4) whether or how they "think" and "feel," and (5) what the best production practices and systems are.

Recommendations

The members of the CAST task force made a number of interim recommendations, in the absence of more definite research results.

  1. Producers should continue to adopt scientifically based practices.
  2. Voluntary animal-care guidelines published by most producer organizations should be consulted carefully by those raising livestock.
  3. The public should be informed of the scientific findings regarding animal well-being.
  4. Congress should continue to consider these findings.
  5. The public should consider requesting scientific assessment of (1) the need to alleviate animal suffering and (2) the degree to which proposed alternative practices would alleviate it if it exists.
  6. Animal accommodations and production practices should reflect the results of scientific assessment.

Possible Means of Study

"There have been several proposals for assessing animal well-being," says Curtis, "and a report to the British Parliament in 1965 was the first attempt." The report of the Brambell special committee to the Parliament stated (1) that animal welfare refers to "both physical and mental well-being," (2) that its assessment must involve "scientific evidence available concerning the feelings of the animals that can be derived from their structure and functions and also from their behavior," and (3) that there are good reasons for assuming that sensations and emotions exist in animals and should not be disregarded.

The report also established "five freedoms" for farm animals. It declared that "an animal should at least be able without difficulty, to turn around, groom itself, get up, lie down and stretch its limbs."

Many approaches to assessing animal well-being have been proposed since the British report. These have emphasized issues like behavior and cognition; anatomy, physiology, and immunology; as well as fitness and agricultural performance.

As a group, the approaches recognize (1) that there are differences between acute and chronic anxiety, frustration, discomfort, and pain in farm animals and (2) that the well-being of an animal involves biological systems that may change over its life as well as over the natural history of the population it belongs to.

Current Status of Farm Animal Welfare in the United States

"Most of the U.S. public supports the agricultural use of animals and believes that they generally are treated humanely," says Curtis. "But many citizens also support governmental regulation as a safeguard."

The regulations that exist in the United States currently have had limited success. Most states have anticruelty legislation to prohibit gross mistreatment of animals, but they often are criticized as ineffective, in part because they are only loosely enforced. Some state legislation excludes agricultural animals altogether while application of other statutes is limited to practices besides those customary in farming. Still other legislation applies only to unjustifiable actions or practices. No federal legislation exists regarding the well-being of animals residing on farms.

Future of Farm Animal Welfare

Judging from the Western European experience, U.S. animal producers can expect ethical values to influence changes in animal care practices.

Recent legislation in western Europe has outlawed certain production systems. Affected sectors at times have collapsed, and importation of foods originating in systems similar to those forbidden has resulted. A number of laws since have been modified or rescinded as citizens have come to recognize domestic and international economic realities.