The welfare of animals used in food and fibre production is a key concern of veterinarians working in these sectors or in animal welfare policy or protection. There are a range of aspects to consider, as detailed below.
Ethics of sustainable production (food security and animal welfare issues)
Although the economic credentials of livestock farming have been questioned, the husbandry of farm animals remains a critical activity underpinning the wellbeing and livelihoods of many communities in developing countries, as well as representing important farming sectors in wealthier countries such as Australia. Sustainable animal production systems thus require a capacity to not degrade the local resource base, as well as appropriate animal health and husbandry. In developed countries, consumers of food and fibre products derived from animals are increasingly seeking assurance of the welfare state of the animals involved. However, others are concerned that there are ethical issues with food production which go beyond welfare concerns. See for instance this BBC article on arguments around eating animals.
Human-animal interactions and impacts on animals
In animal production, the stockperson-animal relationship can have a critical impact on animal welfare, as well as on the productivity and profitability of the farming enterprise. Research over many years in a range of industries including dairy cattle, pig and poultry production, has shown that calm, non-aversive stockperson behaviours result in lower animal stress levels and enhanced growth, milk production and reproduction. Conversely, it has been shown that negative stockperson behaviours result in animals being more stressed and difficult to handle, reinforcing the negative viewpoint of the stockperson toward the animals. Veterinarians and other animal professionals have an important role to play in promoting the benefits of positive stockperson behaviours and in addressing the underlying beliefs and attitudes that drive stockperson behaviour toward animals.
Intensive vs extensive production systems
In the development of animal welfare awareness and research during the latter part of the 20th century, much of the driving impetus came from concern about intensive, confined, large-scale and relatively mechanised systems of animal production that were developing, particularly in the pig and poultry industries. Although it is important to recognise that these elements will continue to induce concern among both public and animal welfare advocates, the corollary that extensive systems are always ‘good’ and intensive systems are always ‘bad’ for animal welfare is simplistic and potentially misleading. Veterinarians working in either sector need to appreciate that production animal welfare is influenced not just by the particular system, but also by the quality of management within that enterprise. Furthermore, understanding and improving animal welfare requires an understanding that problems and challenges can arise in any legitimate production system, but that the types of challenges may vary between more extensive to more intensive systems.
Slaughter and pre-slaughter inspections
It is a reality of current animal production systems that most of the animals involved will be sent for commercial slaughter, either for prime meat production, or because they have reached the end of their productive lifespan for milk, egg or fibre production. The period immediately before and at the point of slaughter represents one of the highest risk points for production animals, and veterinary expertise and involvement is critical to ensuring animal welfare. The commercial slaughter environment is unfamiliar and challenging to most farm animals, with confinement, noise, unfamiliar animals and the after-effects of the transport journey to the abattoir. Veterinary pre-slaughter inspection is designed to ensure that the animals are not diseased or otherwise unfit to enter the food chain, and to ensure and advise abattoir management on animal welfare requirements. Similarly, achieving humane slaughter is a critical requirement for animal welfare, and veterinarians have a crucial role at the level of the abattoir, and in the advancement of societal discussions, in working to achieve the goal of animals being humanely rendered unconscious at the point of slaughter.
Social, economic and cultural drivers of welfare outcomes
In order to advance animal welfare, it is necessary to understand that the management of production animals occurs within an economic framework, as well as being influenced by the surrounding society and culture. Because production animals exist for economic reasons (even if it is a subsistence economy), then proposals to improve their welfare need to be workable from an economic viewpoint. This may involve consumers being willing to pay a higher price for products with higher animal welfare standards, but this should not be automatically assumed, lest animal welfare issues be effectively ‘exported’ through consumers purchasing imported animal products that are cheaper due to lower welfare standards in production.
Strategies to address painful husbandry procedures
Farm animals have traditionally been subjected to a range of potentially painful surgical husbandry procedures. These include, depending on the enterprise and species, castration, dehorning, beak trimming, tail docking and tooth clipping. There is increasing awareness in society that although farm animals have similar levels of sentience and pain sensation to companion animals, the management of pain during procedures that are similar such as castration can be very different in cattle and sheep compared with dogs and cats. There is therefore a need for veterinarians to be at the forefront of developing practical, effective and economic strategies for addressing painful husbandry procedures in livestock. These strategies may include i) breeding animals that do not require the procedure; ii) replacing the procedure with a non-surgical welfare-friendly alternative; or iii) performing the current procedure with analgesia/anaesthesia.
Distress associated with road, sea and air transport
The extensive nature of many animal production systems in countries such as Australia means that the transport of farm animals is a necessary part of current production. More controversial are journeys that are longer than the closest feasible destination because a higher price is achieved by sending the animals further away, such as in live export. However, in all cases it is important to recognise that handling, loading and transport represent risks to animal welfare that need to be managed appropriately. These challenges may include the stress of loading and the novelty of transport, risks to animal comfort and physical integrity, and the effects of fatigue, dehydration and hunger as a journey continues.
Animals that are not fit for transport or commercial slaughter need to be euthanased on farm if treatment is not economic or is unlikely to alleviate suffering. Although veterinarians are expertly placed to provide this service, cost and availability considerations mean that it is often important that farmers and stockpersons be trained to recognise the need and importance of euthanasia, and where appropriate to have access to the tools and training to achieve the humane killing of animals that require it.