The world turns its attention to animal welfare

World standards The World Organization for Animal Health starts with a focus on beef production


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We hear a lot about how livestock welfare has become a front-burner issue around the world. But what specifically is happening at that big-picture global level that Canadian livestock producers and their industries should keep an eye on?

University of British Columbia animal welfare expert Dr. David Fraser is often invited to international livestock welfare discussions and participates in several of the major international organizations and initiatives. He regularly speaks to livestock industry groups to provide what he calls “the 30,000-foot view” — a unique perspective on the global animal welfare agenda.

Fraser provides colour commentary on several key international developments that have stuck in his mind based on activities and observations of the past several months.

  • The “Gateway” opens. An ambitious new web-based communications effort that promises to reshape how the world learns and collaborates on farm animal care comes from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in its interactive “Gateway to Farm Animal Welfare” website. The Gateway is equal parts information source, a forum for discussion and a platform for the international animal welfare community to engage in collaborative projects.

The FAO is highly influential, especially in the less-industrialized countries, and the activity of the Gateway is likely to be a major driver in shaping how the world thinks about and manages farm animal welfare issues.

“This is the first major public communications effort the FAO has really done on farm animal welfare,” says Fraser. “Globally it’s quite significant because this is an information channel to most of the countries in the world. The Gateway should be a very good indication of what the big issues are globally and how different countries are approaching them. It could become a solid resource and tool for Canadian organizations and interest groups involved in livestock welfare.”

  • OIE adopts beef production standards. The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) has adopted its first-ever international standards on animal welfare in livestock production systems, starting with a focus on beef production.

The OIE is the major intergovernmental global organization responsible for improving animal health worldwide, with a total of 178 member countries including Canada. The beef-production standards adopted this past spring by OIE delegates cover a number of components. These include: criteria and indicators to measure the welfare of beef cattle, nutritious quality of feed, supplementary lighting for cattle that do not have access to natural light, bedding and many other aspects of cattle-breeding conditions.

This move is a major shift from the OIE’s traditional focus on animal health into the broader livestock welfare arena. It opens the door to more OIE standards to come and continued building of consensus-based international approaches.

Fraser says there’s nothing mandatory about the standards, but they set a consensus on baseline expectations. “I think it’s very significant that the OIE is now playing such a role. To me, this signifies a global acceptance of the issue that wasn’t there 10 years ago.”

An interesting footnote is that the year before, a draft attempt at standards for broiler chicken production was put forward but did not reach consensus and was withdrawn, says Fraser. “The proposed beef standard had enough specifics to provide real value and it passed overwhelmingly 177 to 1.”

  • Statement of 10 general principles. Another big development out of OIE in 2012 was the organization’s landmark adoption of 10 “general principles for the welfare of animals in livestock production systems.” This was another breakthrough example of global consensus on livestock welfare. The 10 principles, agreed upon unanimously by the 178 OIE members, were designed to guide the development of animal welfare standards for the organization.

The beef production standards were developed under these principles, which are meant to provide a consistent basis for all future livestock welfare standards. The principles outline basic elements that should be incorporated into standards for all types of livestock production, regardless of species or jurisdiction. As such, they represent a historic achievement and promise to be highly influential in shaping the design of livestock welfare approaches throughout the world.

“The sheer number of countries agreeing to these fundamentals, to me represents a monumental shift,” says Fraser. “This signifies a global acceptance of the issue that simply wasn’t there 10 years ago.”

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