Animal welfare: science-based evidence must prevail over emotions

The European Commission has been promoting animal welfare for over 40 years, constantly improving the conditions of farm animals. Animal welfare is a priority for food safety, animals and people’s health, and sustainable food production. The European Union has developed a solid and science-based legislative model on animal welfare through the years, as adapting to progress in this field is important. Still, it seems that emotional convictions are influencing not just public opinion but also the legislative process today.

The European Commission is revising the animal welfare legislation to align with the latest scientific evidence,  current political priorities and public expectations under the EU Farm to Fork strategy. The revision is welcomed by many as an opportunity to update EU animal welfare rules, increase the role of recent science-based analysis, broaden their scope and make them easier to enforce, generally raising the level of animal welfare in the EU. That’s clearly a great idea, but we should not forget that the EU is already recognised as having some of the highest standards for animal welfare in the world!

Alongside laying down minimum standards for the safety of laying hens, broilers, pigs and calves,  the review includes development of specific welfare requirements for different animal species, the prohibition of tail-docking of pigs, the phasing out of the use of cages and finally a review of the regulations on the protection of animals during transport and at the time of the slaughtering.

Again, some good ideas and initiatives that are widely supported by animal enthusiasts, but there  contradictions often arise between the call for more “ethical” practices and what people actually choose or look for when buying food. When it comes to purchasing, people still generally go for the cheapest option foregoing any claims of higher welfare.

This is what the Special Eurobarometer survey on ‘Making our food fit for the future’ revealed. Aimed at uncovering what factors influence food buying and eating habits, it was reported that animal welfare is not the top concern when people buy food. Taste (45%), food safety (42%) and cost (40%) are the main factors influencing Europeans’ food purchases, while one in three consider where the food comes from (34%) or its nutrient content (33%). Only 16% of the European respondents mentioned their ethics and beliefs as being important when purchasing food.

Also, the BEUC survey on attitudes of European consumers on the transition towards sustainable food revealed that they tend to underestimate animal welfare. On average, consumers tend to associate “sustainable food” with “low environmental impact” (48.6%), “use of GMOs and pesticides to be avoided” (42.6%) and “local supply chains” (34.4%). A quarter of respondents associate “sustainable food” with “minimally processed and traditional” food. Other elements such as “healthy”, “fair revenue for farmers”, and “high animal welfare standards” primarily come to mind only for a fifth of respondents.

So, although another Eurobarometer on Animal Welfare shows that more than nine in ten EU respondents believe it is important to protect the welfare of farmed animals (94%), how does that translate when it comes to food purchasing? The same survey shows more than a third of respondents (35%) saying they are prepared to pay up to 5% more, while only a small minority (3%) are ready to pay more than 20% for products sourced from animal welfare-friendly production systems. And we still have more than a third of EU citizens (35%) who say they are not ready to pay more. Food purchasing priorities clearly remain quite disparate and awareness of efforts made on farms to improve animal welfare remain largely unknown or ignored by the general public.

It is clear that during the revision it is important to consult with a wide range of parties but science-based evidence must prevail over emotions. And financial considerations of what changes may imply should not be forgotten or overlooked. When it comes to animal welfare we can’t just consider what makes us humans feel good, but what makes sense for animals in different farming systems, and what it can mean for food pricing. Animals must be respected as sentient beings, always. But for what they are, not for what we think or would like them to be.