How should farm animals be treated? It’s a simple question with a complicated and ever-evolving answer.
“Animal welfare is in the eye of the beholder,” said Shawna Weimer, an animal science professor at the University of Maryland.
She spoke in a Sept. 9 webinar presented by the university’s Extension service.
Views on animal welfare have changed as farm production methods have developed.
In the 1950s, cage housing was a big innovation. Compared to older systems, cages bolstered hygiene, decreased social stress among the birds, simplified the use of medication, and improved working conditions for people.
In the 1960s and 1970s, efficiency was the buzzword as large, vertically integrated companies came to control production from egg to growth to processing and distribution, Weimer said.
Animal welfare concerns heightened during this period.
British writer Ruth Harrison had coined the term “factory farm” in 1964, and she questioned practices including tail docking, castration and beak trimming.
In 1975, the American Peter Singer pushed the cause further in his work “Animal Liberation.” Singer advocated a safe and humane environment for raising livestock and proposed the term “speciesism,” the belief that one species, namely humans, is superior to others.
Researcher Temple Grandin also emerged as an important voice on the humane treatment of animals.
Animal welfare criticism did not, of course, prevent farming from becoming more high tech.
In the 1990s, farms responded to the rising cost of labor and the growing demand for meat with new methods of milking cows, feeding chicks and medicating hogs that produced healthier and more valuable animals.
Livestock producers placed more focus on genetic selection, Weimer said.
And as farming was getting ever more sophisticated, consumers were becoming less familiar with agriculture.
Roughly 90% of Americans had some connection to farming in the 1800s. By 2000, less than 2% of Americans worked on farms.
Over the years, a set of principles have come to define animal welfare, Weimer said.
It’s understood to occur in the context of public perceptions, the economic realities of producing and processing, regulations, and ethical issues.
And a distinction should be made between animal rights and animal welfare, Weimer said.
Activists assert that animals have the right to protection from cruel and abusive treatment, she said. Widely supported rights include freedom from hunger, thirst, injury, disease and fear, and the ability to express natural behavior.
Animal welfare describes the quality of life as perceived by the animals.
Assessing the welfare results of specific farm practices may require some nuance.
Animal behavior researchers find, for example, that stress is not always bad, for animals or people. Short-term stress can enhance performance, productivity and awareness.
But long-term stress takes a toll on animals’ mental and physical well-being, Weimer said.
Hot topics among animal welfare advocates include confinement housing, physical alterations to animals’ bodies, genetics and euthanasia.
The European Union has frequently pursued animal welfare objectives through regulation, though the United States has relied more on voluntary changes, often prompted by customer concerns.
The U.S.’ two main animal welfare laws govern slaughter methods and stipulate that animals not be transported for more than 28 hours without food and water.
But while many efforts have been made to improve animal welfare, 26 states have also considered “ag-gag” laws that would punish workers who document the inhumane treatment of animals.
Only seven states have passed such laws, and many of those have been struck down in court.
Still, the voluntary animal welfare certification program through the Global Animal Partnership has been working well, Weimer said.
GAP uses packaging labels with a 1-to-5 rating system to attest the practices that were used in producing the animals.
The labels has proven popular with consumers, so some companies seem the program as a worthy investment, Weimer said.
But strategies to improve animal welfare can also mean trade-offs, and not just the potential to increase production costs.
Outdoor poultry production gives birds the opportunity to walk and forage in the grass, but the birds are more vulnerable to predators and diseases spread by wild birds than they would be in houses, Weimer said.