The 43rd session of the United Nations Committee on World Farming Security approved a dramatic policy recommendation with broad implications for livestock welfare. These recommendations are modeled after the Terrestrial Animal Health Code written by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE, formerly the International des Epizooties) and are meant to improve animal health, food security, and nutrition.
The recommendations include enabling access to veterinary services, improving animal health management, promoting the prudent and responsible use of antimicrobials—including the phasing out of use of antibiotics for animal growth promotion—delivering on the five freedoms and related OIE standards, and promoting access to good quality feed. The five freedoms referred to in the recommendations are animal rights outlined by the OIE to govern treatment. They are “freedom from hunger, thirst and malnutrition; freedom from fear and distress; freedom from physical and thermal discomfort; freedom from pain, injury and disease; and freedom to express normal patterns of behaviour.” Activists believe these freedoms necessary for the humane treatment of animals and should be universally accepted.
In addition to the humane treatment of animals, scientific research is revealing the financial benefits of the new welfare recommendations. For instance, heat stress lowers growth, reproduction, production, and health in livestock, leading to decreased profit. Bruised meat, caused by rough handling, reduces product quality, safety, and market value. Improving animal welfare can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, lowering climate change risks and related costs. Regulators now have the tools to track and enforce the new recommendations including improved methods of assessing pain, monitoring stress, and evaluating animal welfare.
Researchers have found that educating workers how stress, injury, and shock before slaughter can decrease meat quality has led to increased adoption of animal welfare practices and policies. Collaboration in the United Kingdom between producers, scientists, and veterinarians in policymaking resulted in practical, meaningful, and effective reductions in antibiotic use. Sustainable breeding programs, a branch of agroecology, are focusing on adapting livestock to local environments, increasing food security and diversity. According to the Journal of Dairy Science, the dairy industry has already seen a shift towards decreased antibiotic and hormone use and improved animal welfare, as well as an increase in organic farms, in large part due to social pressures and policy changes. However, a multinational evaluation found that further work is necessary to expand animal welfare programs internationally.
In the United States, the majority of farm animal regulations are at the state level. The strongest relevant law at the Federal level is the Animal Welfare Act, but it does not apply to farm animals. The Twenty-Eight Hour Law of 1873 (amended 1994) prevents the transportation of livestock for more than 28 consecutive hours without being unloaded for five hours for rest, water, and food. The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1958 (amended 2002) outlines proper handling of food animals, except chicken and other birds, but there is inadequate enforcement. These and a few sections of the Code of Federal Regulations Title 9 suggest how to treat farm animals, but they are not as progressive or inclusive as the new U.N. recommendation.
Progress towards improving animal welfare in the U.S. include guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration regarding antibiotic use. This, coupled with voluntary actions in industry, has lowered antibiotic resistance in meat. Additionally, the American Humane Certified and Certified Humane® programs provide third party verification of adherence to OIE recommendations.
Increasingly, companies are voluntarily committing to improving the welfare of animals used in their products. Organizations such as Bon Appétit and Whole Foods have had animal-friendly policies for years. Since the U.N. announcement, companies including Panera Bread, Pret A Manger, Compass Group USA, Sodexo, and Aramark have stated they will take steps towards improving their practices and those of their suppliers. The Humane Society, Global Animal Partnership, World Animal Protection, and other advocacy groups are reporting these commitments with great enthusiasm. Consumers continue to drive market directions and increasingly expect the humane treatment of livestock. The new recommendations seem to be acting as a guidepost for industry, even in the absence of regulatory oversight.