GLOBAL - Increasingly, but to different extents, consumers throughout the world want assurances that the meat and dairy products they are buying are safe to eat, nutritious and of good quality.
Several recent zoonotic and food safety episodes have generally improved information on animal food production systems and led to rising public and scientific concerns over the treatment of animals throughout the entire production chain − on the farm, during transport and at the slaughterhouse.
This in turn has led to increased public demand for stricter welfare standards in farming, evident by the growing policy debate and formulation and introduction of new legislation.
This is particularly true for the European Union (EU), where public demand for higher animal welfare standards in farming has often resulted in improved legislation. Compliance with such standards is figuring more prominently also in bilateral trade agreements.
A recent study by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) looks at animal welfare legislation in the beef, pork and poultry industries in three EU countries (Italy, Poland and the United Kingdom) and six non-EU countries (Egypt, Morocco, Russian Federation, Serbia, Turkey and Ukraine). Specifically, it focuses on the extent to which each country is complying with and enforcing such legislation.
It also touches on the animal welfare work carried out by international organisations, including FAO and the World Organisation for Animal Health, as well as innovative private sector and civil society initiatives that promote higher standards.
The study, the first in a series by FAO's Investment Centre and EBRD, builds on normative and technical work carried out by FAO's Animal Production and Health Division and Development Law Branch of the Legal Office.
Well Cared-For Animals For A Well Cared-For Sector
"The livestock sector cannot thrive without well-cared for, healthy, productive animals, which is why animal welfare is so important", said Daniela Battaglia, Livestock Production Officer responsible for animal welfare with FAO's Animal Production and Health Division.
"It is really about creating a more responsible and ethically sustainable livestock sector," she said. "And that is in everyone's interest, from the farmers who rely on these animals for their income to all citizens concerned about ethical issues and the treatment of the animals who provide their food."
The EU has comprehensive legislation in place to ensure that animals raised for food production are not caused any unnecessary pain, suffering or injury.
Directives apply to living conditions, such as adequate housing, proper ventilation and lighting, regular inspections and access to nourishing diets and fresh water, as well as humane transport and slaughter practices. According to the study, legislation in the non-EU countries is less comprehensive and detailed, and many countries struggle with implementation. Notable exceptions are Serbia and Turkey − both candidates for EU membership − which are working to align their legislation with EU standards to meet entry requirements.
With animal welfare an increasingly important issue in international trade, it is also increasingly relevant to governments and agribusinesses that want to crack a wider market, said Nadia Petkova from the EBRD. "If they want to begin exporting to the EU, then their food products must meet a strict set of standards related to food quality and food safety, the care and treatment of animals and the environment," she said.
Raising Private Standards
Improvements in animal welfare are also driven in large part by the private sector and civil society. Animal welfare organisations, for example, are setting even higher animal welfare standards, developing schemes to raise awareness and to promote practices that improve animals' quality of life.
Freedom Food is the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals farm assurance and food labelling scheme. For meat, fish or eggs to carry the Freedom Food label, exacting animal welfare standards has to be met at every stage of the animal's life.
Likewise, many food businesses are selling products certified by animal welfare organisations to attract consumers concerned about animal treatment − while also building a reputation for ethical and responsible behaviour. For example, Coop Italia, Italy's largest supermarket chain, and Autogrill, a major food and beverage retailer catering to travellers, both only sell free-range eggs.
FAO has long been involved in helping countries develop their capacities, as well as creating and upgrading animal welfare legislation. FAO's Development Law Branch manages the FAOLEX database - a free online source of national legislation and international agreements on food, agriculture and renewable natural resources. The FAOLEX team helped identify and analyse animal welfare-related legislation for this study.
Carmen Bullon, a legal officer with FAO's Development Law Branch, explained: "Many countries are missing opportunities because they don't have sufficient legislative frameworks in place or they are unable to enforce good animal welfare practices."
Helping lower-income countries develop their capacity in this regard would put their producers and industries in a better position to gain a foothold in the international markets.
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