When I decided 20 years ago, as a trained and practicing veterinary surgeon, to take time out to do a post grad in animal welfare – this was new for the veterinary profession. Animal welfare (which was my passion) was poorly understood in the food industry, although customers increasingly voiced their concern loudly. Attention to the systems and practices involved in bringing meat to the packing plant was not looked at in detail by major food retailers at that time – but I could sense things were about to change.
When I left the course, eyes opened, I decided I had to offer my services to an industry ‘who needed it’. So I wrote a letter, made copies and sent it out to all the major UK retailers saying: “animal welfare is a growing concern, I know you are aware of this and as an expert in the field I would like to help you”. I received one serious response. Andy Batty, a forward-thinking man working for Tesco at the time, wrote back and invited me in for a meeting. These meetings went on for six months after which I had landed my first consultancy job – 3 days a week – to develop what became UK’s first major retailer led animal welfare standard and programme.
At that time no food business had an agricultural team: we were starting from scratch. So I took Andy and colleagues out to top class farms, and connected them with academics, experts and NGOs. Perhaps the most significant change I have observed during this time is seeing the value of animal welfare be recognised and become part of the norm alongside food safety for many food retailers. This shift helped make retailers able to be strategic in their approach, embracing programmes aimed at tackling systemic challenges around animal welfare, rather than simply funding individual projects. During the 2000s it became common-place for UK retailers to develop their own animal welfare programmes and build strong internal teams to work with externals such as myself and others to ensure implementation and monitor success.
From a standalone issue and a reason alone to engage upstream in the supply chain, animal welfare strengthened its footing by becoming an integral part of what constitutes sustainable food production – alongside the environmental impact and the economic viability and prosperity of farmers and workers.
The first wave of animal welfare interactions in the business community – which most companies are still riding – was to create input standards that described what acceptable or desired systems for rearing food animals should look like. The frameworks used to achieve higher welfare were largely based on avoiding negative affects. For example, the well-known ‘Five Freedoms’, which determines four ‘absences’ of negative circumstances, including ‘the absence from pain injury and disease’.
The second wave allowed companies to identify and promote – through R&D and farm demonstrations – the practice and systems with the highest animal welfare potential. This inevitably led towards considering systems that provide for greater opportunities for behavioral expression. For example, in FAI’s work with clients we ask two questions to assess the animal welfare potential – 1) is this a healthy animal and 2) does it have what it wants? This is based on a very practical definition coined by Professor Marian Dawkins in the early 2000s.
A third an emerging wave is the promotion of positive welfare attributes associated with a ‘good life’ – such as animal’s ability to express pleasure and interest. This line of inquiry will challenge companies’ commitments further as it is likely to expose the oft-need for more complete system change, with associated cost implications.
Advances in animal welfare science described above, combined with new and readily available technology, is making it possible for us to begin to collect species specific animal based outcome measures across the supply chain. In effect moving from describing a system’s design or even potential, to documenting how an animal is experiencing different production systems and practices. We still have a way to go – especially when it comes to identifying effective, objective and automated ways to collect robust behaviour measure.
However, it is important to take stock of where we have come from. Over the last 20 years I have been honoured to contribute to and build a business focused on creating tools and practices to help companies improve the lives of millions of farm animals across the globe. Together with many others, we have amassed the necessary will and tools – scientific, regulatory, technological and practical – to set the table for the open and transparent food system citizens are asking for. British diners will soon be able to access the whole truth about what is on their plate – and make informed decisions – core for truly sustainable business.