Safer Food – Part Two

This week I helped out at a training course helping veterinary inspectors understand the EU legislation on the welfare of chickens.

Animal welfare research informs the legislation which goes on to protect the welfare of the animals. This is assessed via welfare quality measures (such as the Welfare Quality® Protocol) by inspectors. Veterinary inspectors need an understanding of the legislation, of the research backing the legislation, of the pressures the industry is under, and the value society places on welfare. This course brought veterinary inspectors together with Competent Authorities, scientists and government representatives to discuss the welfare of broilers and layers, particularly with regards to the new ban on barren cages for layers.

Did you know that the chickens we eat are not the chickens who lay our eggs? We refer to meat chickens as broilers and egg chickens as layers. We have heavily selected for different strains of birds, broilers gain weight very quickly (sometimes too quickly) and layers unsurprisingly produce many eggs. Chicken breeding companies even have their own patented breeds for slightly different production systems. This may seem ‘unnatural’ at first glance but selecting for production is an integral part of agriculture, this is how we domesticated animals in the first place!  One possible method for improving welfare in the future would be to incorporate welfare traits into selection. For example we could ensure a broiler breed is not only selected for good weight gain but also behaviours suited to the broiler management system. While this is just one tool we can use to help welfare, it’s one that could improve the lives of many birds.

If you’re in the UK and interested in keeping chickens you can adopt former layers – check out Little Hen Rescue or the British Hen Welfare Trust for more information.

One aspect of the discussion I found very interesting was how different countries felt the legislation fell in with their current practices. For example, Scotland plans to review beak trimming in 2016, while Denmark never beak trims and Austrian farmers can beak trim but they have to get veterinary dispensation to do so. There are also differences in how countries interpret more ambiguous parts of the legislation, for example Scotland treats enriched cage definitions slightly differently from England and Wales.

One of the EU directives was concerned with housing laying hens in enriched (or furnished) cages. This is essentially the banning of battery cages, which are banned in the EU from 2012. Enriched cages, while still very far from the mental picture one has of a traditional chicken shed, have perches, nesting facilities, and places to scratch and peck. While lighting conditions, beak trimming and social stress still exist, it’s a step in the right direction.

Lastly, there was wide agreement that it was the consumer who drives changes in farm practices. For example, the UK now farms approximately half its eggs from barn or free range systems, a massive change from 20 years ago. I come away with the impression that transparency in the market is necessary. There were many reports of enriched cage builders taking somewhat looser interpretations of the legislations (you’d never imagine there could be disagreement over ‘what is a perch’) and insist to farmers they are producing legislation compliant cages. It’s important that consumers continually ask where their food comes from and to understand how it is produced for the industry to achieve the high standards of health and welfare we would like to see.

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