What are feed additives? Can we do without feed additives?

When it comes to farm animals, a great part of their diet usually consists of maize, wheat and soybean meal. In order to avoid possible deficiencies and to ensure the assimilation of all the essential nutrients, feed additives are needed. These ingredients play a key role in guaranteeing appropriate animal nutrition and, therefore, the animals’ health and well-being. 

Feed additives, however, provide other numerous benefits. In fact, among other things, they can reduce the environmental footprint of animal farming as well as supporting animal welfare, improving their resistance to infectious diseases. 

Feed additives are ingredients which are added in very small quantities to feed (in the range of milligrams per kilogramm) in order to exert specific important functions. Furthermore, some of these ingredients are essential, which means that animals are unable to synthesise them by themselves and will thus be deficient of these essentials ingredients if not included to their diet. Feed additives can also, for example, improve feed properties by enhancing their nutritional value, or improve their flavour, texture as well as help conserve their quality, freshness and wholesomeness. Ingredients that most people would recognise are vitamins, carotenoids, amino acids (constituents of proteins), salts and minerals.

When it comes to farm animals, a great part of their diet usually consists of maize, wheat and soybean meal. Such ingredients alone are often not able to satisfy farm animals’ needs in terms of dietary requirements of essential nutrients, necessary to guarantee their good health and their welfare. Therefore, in order to avoid possible deficiencies, feed additives are needed.

Nourishment, however, is not the only function feed additives exert to preserve and support animals’ health and welfare. Some ingredients, such as flavourings and colourants, can stimulate animals’ appetite during delicate periods (like with humans), as could be observed during weaning. Other feed additives, such as probiotics help maintain the balance of the intestinal microflora (similarly as in humans), which has been scientifically demonstrated to boost their immune system. Overall, these functions strengthen animal health and reduce the potential to succumb to harmful micro-organisms and become sick.

Feed additives can also improve the handling and/or hygiene characteristics of the feed.  Most important is the conservation of the quality and nutritive value of the feed, which contributes to the quality of the final animal products. In order to produce healthy food for humans, farm animals need safe, nutritious, wholesome and good quality feed.

Finally, certain feed additives can play an important role in alleviating some societal concerns, especially with regards to sustainability. Enzymes, for example, have been demonstrated to reduce emissions from livestock production (e.g. phosphorus, methane), reducing the environmental footprint.

Can any ingredient be used as a feed additive?

No; to be allowed on the EU market as a feed additive, an ingredient has to undergo a series of meticulous technical and scientific evaluation in the EU before it is allowed to be fed to animals. These assessments ensure that all additives are safe not only for the animals themselves, but also for those handling the feed, for the consumers of animal products, as well as for the environment.

For a feed additive market authorisation, companies have to submit a scientific dossier to the European Commission, who then asks the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to undertake a risk assessment. EFSA will evaluate the data on the quality, safety and/or efficacy of the product in the target animals, as well as the safety for the users, consumers and any potential impact of its use on the environment. At the same time, analytical methodology and samples of the products are provided to the European Union Reference Laboratory (EURL), which makes its own scrutiny. In a next step, if the outcome of the scientific risk assessment is positive, the additive has to be approved by the European Commission through an authorising regulation, which specifies the conditions or restrictions of use (e.g. minimum or maximum dose, animal species) and other specifications. Any modifications in the conditions of use need to be evaluated again before they can be introduced.

The outcome of the scientific evaluation and the authorising regulation are all made publicly available on the EFSA and European Commission websites, e.g. the EU Register of Feed Additives.

Thus, the EU authorisation procedure is based on risk assessment, risk management and risk communication, providing a structure guaranteeing transparency and food safety.  

Can we do without feed additives?

The need for healthy and sustainable animal nutrition is higher than ever before, especially as there have been fundamental developments in the knowledge on the dietary requirements of livestock. In the past, the main intention was to protect animals from potential nutritional deficiencies. Nowadays the focus has been broadened to include the assurance of welfare of the animals, as well as the support of ecology and economy.

Abandoning the use of feed additives would have severe negative consequences for the animals, the environment and for consumers of animal products. A world without feed additives could mean, in most cases, the need to use more ingredients to make up for essential nutritional factors. This would imply, in addition to dealing with the consequences of supplying feed that is unnecessary and which could lead to overeating and sickness, the use of more land, water and energy thereby increasing the environmental footprint linked to raising animals. Sustainable farming requires feed additives that contribute to an improved feed conversion ratio for a more efficient use of land, water and energy.

Feed additives are also used for improving the hygiene characteristics (wholesomeness), and to preserve the quality (and safety) of feed itself, as well as its nutritive contents: without additives there would be more spoilage and also (serious) health risks caused by undesirable molds and bacteria.

Feed additives also aid the animals’ digestion of feed and/or enable a more efficient use of the nutrients present in the diet. The absence or lack of availability of such essential components would make animals more susceptible to harmful micro-organisms and may lead to nutrient deficiencies. As animals are not able to synthesize some essential nutrients, like humans, these need to be provided. For example, a lack of carotenoids in an animals’ diet is reported to lead not only to lower vitality and yields, but also reduced fertility, birth of sickly animals which are more prone to disease and higher mortality rates. Feed additives are therefore important to meet the functional and nutritional needs of animals, as well as maintaining their health and welfare.

You can learn more about the specific benefits of certain ingredients in animal nutrition by visiting the following links:

Carotenoids in Animal Nutrition, FEFANA
Regulation (EC) No 1831/2003 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 September 2003 on additives for use in animal nutrition