Animal welfare is an important part of EFSA’s remit. The safety of the food chain is indirectly affected by the welfare of animals, particularly those farmed for food production, due to the close links between animal welfare, animal health and food-borne diseases. Stress factors and poor welfare can lead to increased susceptibility to disease among animals. This can pose risks to consumers, for example through common food-borne infections like Salmonella, Campylobacter and E.Coli.
The welfare of food producing animals depends largely on how they are managed by humans. A range of factors can impact on their welfare including housing and bedding, space and crowding, transport conditions, stunning and slaughter methods, castration of males and tail docking.
EU regulatory framework
The EU has among the world’s highest standards of animal welfare. The overall framework for EU action on animal welfare is set out in the EU Animal Welfare Strategy 2012-2015.
Harmonised EU rules are in place covering a range of animal species and welfare-affecting issues. Council Directive 98/58/EC lays down the minimum standards for the protection of all farmed animals, while other EU legislation sets welfare standards for farmed animals during transport and at the time of stunning and slaughter. Specific Directives cover the protection of individual animal categories such as calves, pigs and laying hens. In addition to farmed animals, animals used in laboratory tests and wild animals kept in zoos are also protected by harmonised EU standards.
Other international organisations have also issued recommendations and guidelines concerning animal welfare, such as the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the Council of Europe. The EU is a signatory to the European Convention for the protection of animals kept for farming purposes, adopted by the Council of Europe.
- The EU Animal Welfare Strategy 2012-2015
- Animal Welfare main Community legislative references
- World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE)
- Council of Europe
EFSA’s role and activities
EFSA’s activities in this area are carried out by the Panel on animal health and welfare (AHAW). The Panel provides independent scientific advice to the European Commission, European Parliament and Member States on all aspects of animal health and animal welfare, chiefly for food producing animals. Its scientific opinions focus on helping risk managers identify methods to reduce unnecessary pain, distress and suffering for animals and to increase welfare where possible. EFSA is not mandated to give advice on ethical or cultural issues related to animal welfare.
The European Commission has mandated EFSA to provide scientific advice on the welfare of a number of farm animal categories including pigs, fish and dairy cows. The AHAW Panel examines a wide range of issues affecting the welfare of each animal category, such as housing and husbandry systems, nutrition and feeding, transport and stunning and killing methods.
Animal welfare at slaughterhouses
EFSA has published four scientific opinions on the welfare of cattle, pigs, sheep and goats, and poultry during the slaughter process. The opinions propose monitoring indicators to be used and sampling protocols to be put in place at slaughterhouses.
Moreover, EFSA’s experts have published a guidance on criteria to evaluate studies on the effectiveness of stunning methods. This document defines the assessment process that will be applied by the EFSA’s Animal Health and Welfare Panel to studies on alternative stunning methods.
Guidance on the risk assessment of animal welfare
In January 2012, EFSA’s AHAW Panel published its Guidance on the risk assessment of animal welfare. Before then, there had been no specific international guidelines on risk assessment for animal welfare, meaning different approaches had been followed by scientific experts involved with this type of work.
In an effort to provide a standardised methodology for the risk assessment of animal welfare, EFSA’s AHAW Panel developed its pioneering Guidance giving scientists, veterinarians and all those with an interest in animal welfare a practical, harmonised methodology to assess risks associated with the welfare of animals.
The European Commission has called for measurable animal welfare indicators to be developed to reinforce the scientific basis of EU regulation in this field. EFSA is therefore undertaking ground-breaking work to develop a set of scientifically measurable animal welfare indicators to be included in its future conclusions and recommendations. The AHAW Panel is co-operating with scientific institutes in the Member States mandated to support EFSA on this major task.
These welfare indicators will support decision-making on the acceptable conditions for farmed animals and will be used to underpin monitoring and control programmes, implemented at farm level, to guarantee standards of animal health and welfare and to help control diseases.
As part of this work, in January 2012 EFSA published two scientific opinions on the use of animal-based measures for animal welfare assessment. The two opinions, one each for dairy cows and pigs, are the first in a series of work on animal-based measures that will ultimately cover all farm species. EFSA has also published a general statement on the use of animal-based measures to assess animal welfare, contributing to the establishment of a common framework for future EFSA scientific opinions in this area.
The use of animal-based measures to assess animal welfare is relatively new. Legislation related to the protection of animals usually focuses on the assessment of different factors that can impact on welfare rather than on the animal’s response to these factors. Such factors may include both the resources available to the animal in its environment, for example space or bedding material, or the practices used to manage the animal on the farm, such as how and when the farmer feeds the animal or the procedures in place for weaning.
The AHAW Panel’s latest scientific advice looks at the effectiveness of assessing the responses of the animal to factors in its environment as an alternative or sometimes complementary approach to assessing the factors themselves. The rationale for this approach is that animal-based measures aim to directly determine the actual welfare status of the animal and therefore include both the effect of the environment as well as how the animal is managed.
- Animal welfare newsletters – European Commission (see issue 8: Sheep and wool: a welfare perspective)
The AHAW Panel has published five scientific opinions and a scientific report on the overall effects of the most relevant farming systems on the welfare of dairy cows and related diseases, assessing the potential impacts of housing, feeding, management and genetic selection. Due to the wealth of data, the experts subdivided the risk assessments into four areas:
- Metabolic and reproductive disorders.
- Udder disorders.
- Leg and locomotion problems.
- Behavioural disorders, fear and pain.
The Panel concluded that long term genetic selection for higher milk yield and the nature of the farming systems used – i.e. housing and equipment, as well as management and handling practices – are major factors affecting the health of dairy cows and other aspects of their welfare.
The Panel has delivered comprehensive advice on the impact of farm management practices on the welfare of pigs, issuing scientific opinions on:
- Piglet castration
- Effects of different space allowances and floor types on the welfare of weaners and rearing pigs
- Housing and husbandry practices for fattening pigs
- Housing and husbandry practices for adult breeding boars, pregnant, farrowing sows and unweaned piglets
- Risks associated with tail biting in pigs
The AHAW Panel also delivered advice on the welfare of farmed fish, looking at the impact of husbandry systems and addressing stunning and killing methods for the different species concerned.
Non food producing animals
In addition to the welfare of food producing animals, EFSA has issued scientific advice in response to requests from risk managers on issues such as:
- Stunning and killing of seals: looking at the evidence to assess whether seals can be killed rapidly and effectively without causing avoidable pain, distress, fear and other forms of suffering, and if so which methods are most likely to achieve that.
- Welfare of laboratory animals: examining the evidence for the sentience and capacity of laboratory animals to experience pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm. It contained recommendations on improved welfare conditions and humane killing methods.
- Import of wild birds into the EU: underlining the high mortality rate and widespread suffering of wild birds imported for show, zoos or as pets. It highlighted the risks for domestic bird populations of infection with exotic diseases including Avian Influenza.
Other related EFSA activities
In April 2009 the Scientific Committee adopted an opinion reviewing the use of animal testing in different areas of EFSA’s risk assessment activities and outlining strategies which can reduce the number of animal studies needed. It is based on the findings of the working group on experimental animals, which underlined the importance of risk assessment approaches in the area of food and feed safety which minimise the use of experimental animals and their suffering and lead towards the replacement of animal testing.
Given the close link between the conditions of farmed animals, disease prevalence and food safety, other EFSA Panels work in closely related areas. Like the AHAW Panel, their work sometimes deals with individual animal species or categories. For instance, in relation to pigs:
- The Panel on biological hazards (BIOHAZ) has delivered opinions on issues such as the food safety aspects of pig housing and husbandry systems, and on mitigation options for Salmonella in pig production.
- The Panel on additives and products or substances used in animal feed (FEEDAP) issues scientific opinions on feed additives used in animal nutrition, including a number of substances for intended use in pig feed.
- EFSA issues reports on the prevalence of zoonotic diseases in farm animals across the EU, including the prevalence of Salmonella in slaughter pigs.