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30-01-2012 - Ambitions on welfare

Ambitions on welfare

GIVEN the complexity of the subject and differences in attitudes and approach, devising a strategy to help improve animal welfare across the European Union is an ambitious undertaking, but the European Commission has attempted to do just that. A communication on an EU Strategy for the Protection and Welfare of Animals 2012-2015, which was adopted by the European Commission last week (see p 87 of this issue) has already attracted criticism, with animal welfare groups describing it as lacking in ambition and a missed opportunity. Others, including farmers, have welcomed the strategy, which, it could be argued, presents a pragmatic approach that offers real opportunities for improvement in the future. One only has to look at some of the issues surrounding implementation of EU legislation banning battery cages for laying hens to see the kinds of problem that can arise in this notoriously difficult field.

The Commission is not renowned for clarity of expression, but its strategy document sets out the problem remarkably clearly: ‘Over the years it has become increasingly clear that simply applying the same sector-specific rules to animal welfare does not always yield the desired results. Problems of compliance to sector-specific rules point the need to reflect on whether a “one size fits all” approach can lead to better welfare outcomes across the Union. The diversity of farming systems, climatic conditions, land realities in the different member states have led to considerable difficulties in agreeing on unitary rules and even more difficulties in ensuring their correct implementation. The net result is that animal welfare conditions in the Union fall short of a level playing field which is required to sustain the enormous economic activity that drives the treatment of animals in the European Union.’

It also draws attention to gaps in existing EU legislation, which, while often detailed, is sector specific and sporadic in its coverage; for example, it points out, no EU legislation exists on the welfare of pets. It also seems to recognise that there is not much point in having detailed legislation if it is not properly implemented and enforced.

By way of solution, the Commission plans a two-pronged approach. First, rather than adopting or adapting specific legislation to specific problems, it proposes a simplified, more holistic approach to legislation, establishing general principles into a consolidated legal framework which, it hopes, might ultimately facilitate enforcement. In particular, it will consider the feasibility and appropriateness of introducing science-based indicators based on animal welfare outcomes rather than the animal welfare inputs that have been applied so far.

Secondly, it hopes to reinforce or make better use of existing options, by for example, developing tools to improve compliance, providing consumers with better information, and carrying out studies in areas where animal welfare appears to encounter most problems.

All this sounds logical. Many of the measures outlined in the document – such as greater emphasis on welfare outcomes, better information for consumers and more education on animal welfare issues – reflect current thinking and, indeed, have been advocated by the UK's Farm Animal Welfare Committee (FAWC) for some time. The strategy also acknowledges the importance of good stockmanship, with a proposal to develop common requirements for the competence of animal handlers. In addition, it proposes investigating the welfare of farmed fish. Disappointingly, it includes little in the way of concrete action to help improve the welfare of companion animals, although it does propose a study on the welfare of cats and dogs involved in commercial practices, which perhaps leaves the door ajar for some progress in this area in the future.

As always, the overall outcome of the strategy will depend on just how well it is implemented. Broad principles are all very well, but there is always a danger of them being seen as an excuse for inaction and this must not be allowed to happen. This is particularly true in a field as complex as animal welfare, which, as the FAWC pointed out in a recent report, cannot be left to market forces alone (VR, December 17, 2011, vol 169, p 644). The principles outlined in the strategy seem generally sound but, as the document itself seems to recognise, they must be followed through.

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