How does Australian farm animal welfare stack up?

The RSPCA was recently asked four key questions on animal welfare in Australia and how it compares globally. RSPCA Australia’s CEO Heather Neil sat down to answer these important questions.

How do you think Australian farm animal welfare practices compare with those adopted internationally?
Australia’s reputation for ‘clean, green’ agricultural production and good animal welfare is hard-won and is at risk if we do not keep pace with developments in the field.

Unfortunately, there are signs that Australia is starting to slip behind internationally when it comes to animal welfare. Routine practices in Australia like mulesing or disbudding and dehorning (practices that could be replaced by appropriate breeding strategies) result in poor animal welfare and risk industry reputation. Then there is the live export trade: our reputation is damaged every time images of Australian cattle and sheep being cruelly treated are beamed around the world. This is the very reason New Zealand made the decision to end live animal export for slaughter – to protect its international reputation as a clean, green and quality producer of livestock products.

Many other developed nations are leaving us behind when it comes to phasing out practices and production systems that simply cannot meet the welfare needs of farm animals. The conventional battery cage for egg-laying hens is a prominent example. While Australia is still debating the issue, New Zealand is six years into its transition away from the barren cage system. The Europeans completed their transition five years ago and the Canadians are now on their way as well.

One of our key markets, China, is taking animal welfare more seriously than they have in the past. Chinese Vice Minister of Agriculture Yu Kangzhen said in 2017 that animal welfare was important for developing green agriculture, significant for ensuring healthy consumption, and the ‘embodiment of human caring in modern society’. Australian agriculture is primed to capitalise on these increasing expectations and can gain a competitive advantage in the process, but it must invest in staying ahead of the game on animal welfare.

How should farm animal welfare be assessed? Should physiological indicators be used, or will farm animal welfare standards ultimately be determined by consumer sentiment?
Farm animal welfare should be assessed using contemporary scientific measures. Good animal welfare means providing animals with all the elements required to ensure their physiological and behavioural needs are met. Welfare assessment has moved beyond simply looking at an animal’s physical performance and now incorporates the animal’s mental state as well. This acknowledges that farm animals are sentient and able to feel pain, anxiety, and fear. Equally, it recognises that animals can experience positive affective states, which are increasingly becoming part of welfare assessments. The focus in recent years has been on a practical ‘welfare outcome assessment’ approach which looks at all the resources (‘inputs’) provided to the animal, including housing and care and management, and then gives an assessment based on health and fitness as well as behaviour and affective state.

In Australia, consumers generally assume farm animals have a good life (and are sorely disappointed when they find out otherwise). It is important to ensure consumers are provided with clear labelling and accurate information about the welfare impacts of different production systems and practices.

Should consumers make decisions about animal welfare standards via accurate labelling, or should retailers dictate what practices are acceptable?
There’s no doubt that there’s growing interest amongst Australians about where their food comes from and how it is produced. Consumers are looking for labels and brands they trust to give them the assurance that a packet of meat or carton of eggs are from animals that have been farmed humanely.

It’s critical that Australia’s labelling laws ensure an accurate description of the production system, and brands should be encouraged to provide their customers with the ability to find out more. Transparency and openness about animal welfare standards engenders trust in livestock production practices in Australia which is in the long-term interest of livestock producers.

By lifting minimum requirements for humane production, retailers are demonstrating their corporate social responsibility and meeting the demands of a growing customer base that is interested in sustainable farming practices and animal welfare.

Does Australia need common national farm animal welfare standards, and how should these be achieved?
It is important that we have nationally consistent animal welfare standards that make improvements to animal welfare and remove outdated practices. Australia’s national standards are currently developed via a long and convoluted process which has no formal mechanism for commissioning and incorporating independent scientific reviews into the process. Australia is one of few developed nations that does not have a national animal welfare advisory body to oversee the consistent development of standards. The RSPCA has long advocated for the establishment of a national animal welfare advisory body to consistently coordinate improved animal welfare outcomes, as well as providing certainty for industry and consumers.

Do you have a question or are interested to hear more from us on these topics? Let us know in the comments.

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