Debate Forum on animal welfare labelling: an attempt to summarise….

8 July 2022

At the recent international UFAW conference held in Edinburgh on the 28 -29 June 2022, a debate forum was organised to discuss the pros, the cons, and the challenges associated with animal welfare labelling of food products. It was chaired by UFAW Research Director Birte Nielsen and – to initiate the discussion – featured talks from  Professor Frank Tuyttens (ILVO and Ghent University, Belgium), Professor Siobhan Mullan (University College Dublin, Ireland), and Professor Alistair Lawrence (SRUC/University of Edinburgh, UK). To encourage an open debate, the meeting was neither live-streamed, nor recorded, and the summary below is but a fraction of the opinions and issues raised in the hour-long discussion that followed the talks.

Frank presented a comparison of resource-based and animal-based measures when assessing the welfare of livestock. He warned us that when we use resource-based measures, actual animal welfare status may differ even when similar resources are available. There is also a discrepancy between the consumer impression of a given production system and the animal welfare reality and variability. This highlights a need to use animal-based measures to adequately and appropriately assess the welfare of the animals in any given system. However, these measures tend to focus on physical problems, such as health issues, as these can more easily be measured objectively.

Siobhan highlighted the challenges when using animal-based measures (e.g. which ones? Their validity, reliability, feasibility? At what thresholds?). Should we aim for individual, iceberg indicator(s) or a suite of measures aiming to better represent a holistic experience? She also emphasized a widespread lack in use of positive animal welfare indicators, those reflecting positive affective states of not only pleasure and joy but also comfort, confidence, and curiosity. She acknowledged that these are complex to assess. To get started “Keep it simple” was her advice and focus on validity to solidify trustworthiness.

Both Frank and Siobhan acknowledged the need to combine method of production information with (potential) welfare outcomes. This could be done by starting with evidence-based welfare benefits of a system/ method of production, reflecting its realistic welfare potential, eventually enhanced by welfare outcomes.

Alistair reminded us of work by Harvey and Hubbard from 2013, that when citizens are in favour of better animal welfare but not willing to pay for it, this is not evidence for neither market failure nor a gap in the market, but that the consumer signalling is ‘cheap talk’ as they do not put their money where their mouth is. Indeed, there may be limits to how far consumer-driven approaches can push animal welfare improvements. He emphasised that transforming the food system will require change at all levels: structural, cultural, local, and individual. There are risks in an over-reliance on individuals’ behavioural change (e.g. through marketing/ labelling) as a means to improving animal welfare. Alistair suggested that it could be advantageous to integrate animal welfare into overarching food policy aimed at long-term sustainability and acknowledged that this may require ways of valuing animal welfare in economic terms.

The debate that followed was lively, interesting, and diverse. It highlighted the wide-ranging issues that impinge on labelling, including the multitude of stakeholders (producers, consumers, retailers…) often holding different views. Willingness-to pay came up a few times, but the discussion kept circling around the topic of sustainability: even if animal welfare can be seen as part of sustainability, how does it work when these two aspects pull in different direction? This may happen when, for example, slower growing strains of broiler chickens with a higher animal welfare potential produce protein less efficiently and thus less sustainably than faster growing birds. A proposal to vote on whether animal welfare was integral to sustainability was abandoned, as it became clear that it was impossible to formulate a clear dichotomy to vote on that would be interpreted identically by all.

Constructive suggestions were put forward: invoke the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals; add another pillar (animal welfare) to the current three pillars of sustainability (economic viability, environmental protection, and social equity). Provocative comments fuelled the debate: we have been talking about this for ages – are we just rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic? Labelling doesn’t matter/doesn’t work/doesn’t move us forward – just concentrate on continuously making animal welfare better on farm, during transport, and at slaughter. Let’s make high welfare product cost less by subsidising not the farmer but the consumer at the time of purchase. Could we construct animal welfare points, similar in concept to carbon credit points?

As the debate forum came to an end, more questions had been raised than answers provided. One of the closing remarks reminded us all not to let perfection stand in the way of progress, and that starting simple is better than not starting at all. It was an inspiring debate that raised a great number of views, and definitely a format that UFAW will consider including again for future congresses – let us know your suggestions for subjects to debate, please!