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Farm animal welfare metrics recommendations for the Food Sustainability Index

Since the start of 2018 we have been working to identify and recommend robust metrics on farm animal welfare (FAW) for future use in editions of the Food Sustainability Index (FSI) and other global sustainability indexes.


A key objective of the Food Ethics Council’s ‘Pulling the index lever’ work is to recommend robust metrics on farm animal welfare (FAW) for future editions of the Food Sustainability Index (FSI).  The FSI is important because it attempts a comprehensive analysis of in-the-round sustainability. It measures over sixty indicators, which cover public health, food waste, and social and environmental dimensions. Importantly, the FSI team has recognised that it’s extremely difficult to achieve environmental progress while continuing to keep farm animals in the most intensive farm systems. 

Since the start of 2018 we have worked to identify metrics options with members of the UK’s Farm Animal Welfare Forum (including Compassion in World Farming, RSPCA and World Animal Protection) through FAWF meetings and follow-up activity and two workshops convened with member organisations’ expert representatives. We identified 37 possible metrics, which have been assessed in terms of priority and practical achievability. Our conclusions from this consultation appear below.

We’re hopeful that through this work we will be able to help the FSI team expand their farm animal welfare section so that it becomes truly reflective of national progress in this important area of sustainability. 

We also want other major indexes to recognise the importance of integrating farm animal welfare metrics with environmental measures and other aspects of sustainability.

Our top four priority metrics:

1. Legal protection of farm animal welfare

Statutory protection remains the most accessible, comparable, and reliable baseline for describing national commitments to farm animal welfare. This metric would build on the single farm animal welfare metric currently contained in the FSI (Quality of animal welfare regulation) and separate it into three equally weighted but distinct aspects of legislation to build a more robust and detailed picture:

A) Protection of needs at during rearing and production – such as recognition of sentience, and existence of legislation based on the five freedoms.

B) Legal protection of farm animal welfare needs during transport.

C) Legal protection of farm animal welfare needs at slaughter.

While some additional research is necessary this metric is highly achievable in a relatively short time frame.

2. Existence of robust mechanisms to enforce national FAW laws for categories a, b and c, above.

Statutory protection is critical, but good enforcement of legislation is also essential.  Enforcement varies considerably around the world, on farm, during transportation, and at slaughter. Where legislation and good enforcement go hand in hand we can expect a reliable application of national standards. 

This metric should reflect the role of government inspection and associated sanctions for, and follow up to ensure correction of, non-compliance, statutory bodies, species-specific trade organisations, and the existence and scope of national farm assurance schemes (baseline standards and above).

3. Proportion of animals kept in more extensive farm systems that DO allow natural behaviours

Good farm animal welfare is an important end in itself. We should respond to the challenges presented by today’s farming methods, recognising sentience and taking action to build positive welfare models.  These models should not only avoid negative factors but also provide opportunities for animals to have positive experiences such as the ability to perform their natural behaviours, enjoy fresh air and daylight, and experience positive and negative emotional states. It is also important to recognise that each animal is an individual, as well as a member of a herd or flock.

We recommend a positively-framed focus on farm systems with better welfare potential because we believe it is powerful, particularly in an index context, to highlight excellence. An alternative metric centred on the use of cages and other intensive farm systems is also an option. 

4. Presence (and scope) of dedicated higher farm animal welfare assurance schemes.

Higher welfare assurance schemes are linked to food labelling and therefore public-facing.  This metric is important because it indicates the level of civil society and citizen engagement with farm animal welfare in a straight-forward way. 

Welfare schemes also have the ability to evaluate and promote higher welfare outcomes.  This is needed to balance the welfare potential which is not always delivered in extensive systems. It is important to note that assurance schemes vary enormously and the intention of this metric is to highlight national schemes which are centred on farm animal welfare, for example RSPCA Assured. Schemes should also include a scheme level management system that actively promotes farm level continuous improvement. 

Our additional priority options:

Proportion of food animals kept in cages or other intensive systems.

We favour the positive measure identified in top priority metric 3 above, but this is also a compelling option with some EU data for animals in cages immediately available. 

Existence of method of production food labelling

Labelling empowers citizens to drive progress from the market place.  Farm system labelling has proved highly successful in driving progress. Information, readily accessible for the general public, is critical to delivering change. This metric should reflect mandatory and voluntary method of production labelling systems and should reflect schemes where farm system labelling is explicit, for example the EU system for labelling eggs (caged, barn, free range, organic), or where the method of production is a key feature or entry point for the scheme, for example the mandatory Danish scheme for labelling pork.

Proportion of higher welfare breeds

To address some of the biggest on-going challenges for certain types of animal farming will require a fundamental change in genetics, and a shift to more robust breeds. This metric responds to the shift towards more extreme genetics which impact negatively on FAW.

High yielding breeds are inherently vulnerable to key health problems. For example, high yielding Holstein-type dairy cattle are particularly prone to lameness and mastitis because breeding has focussed on milk yield. More robust breeds would include Shorthorn- and Jersey-type cattle. Fast growing, high yielding broilers have inherent heart problems and poor leg health.  Genetic selection has focussed on a high growth rate whereby bones and cardiovascular system are unable to develop at sufficient rate to support body weight. More robust breeds, which have the ability to walk well, perch and forage throughout the rearing period, have been approved by RSPCA breed assessment. High yielding egg-laying hens also have poor bone health because the birds have been bred for high egg production at the expense of bone health (calcium deposition). In beef cattle we should encourage a move away from supporting double-muscle breeds such as the Belgian Blue, and focus on support for breeds that calve more easily such as Aberdeen Angus and Hereford.

Quality of aquaculture legislation (welfare during rearing and slaughter, and environmental impact, e.g. sea lice)

Aquaculture is not covered by the FSI or the Animal Protection Index but is increasingly important globally. This metric would require research into national legislation on a par with the original Animal Protection Index. However, legislation around aquaculture tends to cut across a larger number of government agencies than terrestrial animal agriculture.

Proportion of farm animals with mutilations.

Mutilations such as tail docking, dis-budding of horns, and castration are often carried out routinely. This happens despite the existence of regulations to prohibit some mutilations in some countries. Mutilations are usually carried out with inadequate or non-existent anaesthetic, analgesic, or after care. Some mutilations are to control behaviour, some related to perceived market quality, and some relate to animal health and human safety. Animal farming should take place with respect for the whole farm animal. 

Livestock exported live for slaughter and further fattening.

FAWF member organisations believe it is ethically unacceptable to export livestock for slaughter and further fattening. There should be a trade in meat, not live animals. This is not only a good indicator in terms of animal welfare, but also reflects the extent to which land use is supporting national food requirements.

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