How does Australian farm animal welfare stack up?

Published 1 May 2018

Heather Neil
Chief Executive Officer, RSPCA Australia
David Jochinke
President, Victorian Farmers Federation

Q1.  How do you think Australian farm animal welfare practices compare with those adopted internationally?

Heather Neil, RSPCA Australia

Australia’s reputation for ‘clean, green’ agricultural production and good animal welfare is hard-won and is at risk if we do not keep pace with developments in the field.

Unfortunately, there are signs that Australia is starting to slip behind internationally when it comes to animal welfare. Routine practices in Australia like mulesing or disbudding and dehorning (practices that could be replaced by appropriate breeding strategies) result in poor animal welfare and risk industry reputation. Then there is the live export trade: our reputation is damaged every time images of Australian cattle and sheep being cruelly treated are beamed around the world. This is the very reason New Zealand made the decision to end live animal export for slaughter – to protect its international reputation as a clean, green and quality producer of livestock products.

Many other developed nations are leaving us behind when it comes to phasing out practices and production systems that simply cannot meet the welfare needs of farm animals. The conventional battery cage for egg-laying hens is a prominent example. While Australia is still debating the issue, New Zealand is six years into its transition away from the barren cage system. The Europeans completed their transition five years ago and the Canadians are now on their way as well.

One of our key markets, China, is taking animal welfare more seriously than they have in the past. Chinese Vice Minister of Agriculture Yu Kangzhen said in 2017 that animal welfare was important for developing green agriculture, significant for ensuring healthy consumption, and the ‘embodiment of human caring in modern society’. Australian agriculture is primed to capitalise on these increasing expectations and can gain a competitive advantage in the process, but it must invest in staying ahead of the game on animal welfare.

David Jochinke, VFF

Australian farmers play a small role on the world stage of agriculture; however, we punch above our weight when it comes to responsibly caring for our animals and the environment.

It can be useful to compare different farming practices around the world to learn about new methods of animal care. Whenever new methods are trialled, Australian farmers put those learnings in the context of their own farms’ environment. Most importantly, Australian farmers are going to do what is best for their animals.

For example, I don’t think anyone would agree that exposing chickens to the extreme heat of Northern Queensland or the freezing Tasmanian winter is in the best interests of the chicken. That is one reason farmers choose to house their chickens indoors in a climate-controlled environment.

There is certainly no cookie-cutter template that can be used everywhere, but our farmers see it as their responsibility to remain up-to-date with new animal husbandry methods.

Q2.  How should farm animal welfare be assessed? Should physiological indicators be used, or will farm animal welfare standards ultimately be determined by consumer sentiment?

Heather Neil, RSPCA Australia

Farm animal welfare should be assessed using contemporary scientific measures. Good animal welfare means providing animals with all the elements required to ensure their physiological and behavioural needs are met. Welfare assessment has moved beyond simply looking at an animal’s physical performance and now incorporates the animal’s mental state as well. This acknowledges that farm animals are sentient and able to feel pain, anxiety, and fear. Equally, it recognises that animals can experience positive affective states, which are increasingly becoming part of welfare assessments. The focus in recent years has been on a practical ‘welfare outcome assessment’ approach which looks at all the resources (‘inputs’) provided to the animal, including housing and care and management, and then gives an assessment based on health and fitness as well as behaviour and affective state.

In Australia, consumers generally assume farm animals have a good life (and are sorely disappointed when they find out otherwise). It is important to ensure consumers are provided with clear labelling and accurate information about the welfare impacts of different production systems and practices.

David Jochinke, VFF

Just like farmers, the community care for animals and want reassurance that farm animals are being well cared for. Farmers as community members want that assurance as well, and take their responsibility as primary caregivers very seriously.

Farmers see their role as protectors of animals; protecting them from illness, injury, poor health and from their surrounding environment. Farmers make welfare assessments by working towards the best interests of the animal.

The government’s role is to ensure compliance with minimum standards. It is our view that the government should set a minimum standard that protects the basic needs of farming animals; shelter, food, water, safety, and protection from disease.

However, farmers do not just meet the minimum – they put honest effort into taking care of their animals. Whether you’re a dairy, livestock or chicken farmer you are looking to use your years of experience to improve care on a daily basis.

Q3.  Should consumers make decisions about animal welfare standards via accurate labelling, or should retailers dictate what practices are acceptable?

Heather Neil, RSPCA Australia

There’s no doubt that there’s growing interest amongst Australians about where their food comes from and how it is produced. Consumers are looking for labels and brands they trust to give them the assurance that a packet of meat or carton of eggs are from animals that have been farmed humanely.

It’s critical that Australia’s labelling laws ensure an accurate description of the production system, and brands should be encouraged to provide their customers with the ability to find out more. Transparency and openness about animal welfare standards engenders trust in livestock production practices in Australia which is in the long-term interest of livestock producers.

By lifting minimum requirements for humane production, retailers are demonstrating their corporate social responsibility and meeting the demands of a growing customer base that is interested in sustainable farming practices and animal welfare.

David Jochinke, VFF

We have seen a move in the last 10 to 15 years for the retailers to participate in an animal ethics conversation with their customers. Animal ethics and welfare are closely linked and very personal to each individual consumer.

Your personal ethics may lead you to only purchase animal products where animals were raised in conditions that mimic the natural environment of those animals, or that aim to optimise the health of those animals. Indeed, your personal ethics may lead you to not eat animal products at all. Retailers should cater to your personal preferences as a customer.

Just as we would not accept those with no experience coming onto farms and dictating how we take care of our animals, we as consumers would not accept a retailer dictating our personal ethics. We live in a democracy where people can have different views; it is not up to the retailers to make our purchasing decisions for us.

Q4.  Does Australia need common national farm animal welfare standards, and how should these be achieved?

Heather Neil, RSPCA Australia

It is important that we have nationally consistent animal welfare standards that make improvements to animal welfare and remove outdated practices. Australia’s national standards are currently developed via a long and convoluted process which has no formal mechanism for commissioning and incorporating independent scientific reviews into the process. Australia is one of few developed nations that does not have a national animal welfare advisory body to oversee the consistent development of standards. The RSPCA has long advocated for the establishment of a national animal welfare advisory body to consistently coordinate improved animal welfare outcomes, as well as providing certainty for industry and consumers.

David Jochinke, VFF

The most important aspect of animal welfare is not what standards are in place but whether animals are being cared for appropriately. Whether the standards are state-based or national, farmers are going to care for their animals. We are less concerned about the process and more concerned about the results for animals on the farm.

Under the current process, minimum standards are agreed to nationally but then implemented by each state. In Victoria’s case the standards are directly adopted in our regulation. Where the standards are adopted and enforced the system is solid.

That is just the minimum standard though; our farmers with decades of experience, strive for better results for their animals, year in and year out.

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