Animal welfare regulations: a rough crossing from Europe to US

Published on
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old

Wes Jamison, PhD
Wes Jamison, PhD, talks with attendees.

When it comes to animal welfare, Wes Jamison, PhD, of Interdisciplinary and Global Studies in Worcester, Mass, views Europe as a harbinger of change in the United States. And much of what he sees there disturbs him, such as the way European society rather than science tends to dictate change.

"Europe is important because usually things happen there and then they come to the United States," Dr. Jamison said in his pacesetting AABP conference presentation on European attitudes and regulations concerning large animals.

A recent example is the American Humane Association's Free Farmed Certification Program (JAVMA, Nov 15, 2000, page 1449), which Dr. Jamison said the AHA copied from a program that met with "resounding success" in the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. "In order to get that label, you have to adhere to the American Humane Association's criteria for what is animal well-being and humaneness," he said.

"I want to get you thinking about defining what animal well-being is in an age of increasing consumer anxiety and change." Not only are US consumers becoming increasingly intent on food animals being humanely raised, but also a growing number of US enterprises are interested in exporting products to Europe.

"It's very important to understand the [European] regulatory principles, because they will use those principles as trade barriers against products from the United States, particularly animal welfare standards," Dr. Jamison noted.

The philosophic differences between the European Union and United States are striking.

"Americans view welfare from a production parameter perspective," he said. "Healthy, happy animals produce well. ...That is fundamentally different than the European regulatory way of looking at things. They look at stressors. They want to measure baseline parameters independent of production."

The Swiss (who are not EU members) even view high production as a tip-off to inhumane treatment of food animals, he noted.

Europeans also have a low opinion of "any unnatural animal production," Dr. Jamison said. "There's no significant support for genetically modified organisms. Biotechnology in food animal production, vaccine production, and pest resistance are completely morally unacceptable and will be legislated out of business."

According to Dr. Jamison, the European Union has far more animal welfare regulations. They are complex, becoming increasingly stringent, and measure every layer—from pregnancy to rearing, to transportation, to slaughter, to processing.

The EU Declaration on the Protection of Animals represents a departure from the language of any other animal regulations that have come before, he said. It states that animals are not "things" but rather "sentient beings" who are to be valued for their self-worth.

"You as veterinarians are going to be called upon to define what an animal's self-worth is," he said, "because that's what veterinarians in Europe were being called upon to do."

The EU declaration is part of a 1991 regulatory statement of policy developed in Maastricht, Netherlands as an amendment to the 1957 Treaty of Rome, which formed the European Economic Community (later, European Union). It states: "The high contracting parties, desiring to ensure the prudent protection and respect for the welfare of animals as sentient beings, have agreed upon the following information, which shall be annexed to the treaty..."

This document further states that animal welfare is to be ensured by reducing stressors. How does one measure stressors? European regulators want to measure them in the nondomesticated equivalent of a species, such as free-range animals.

What is measured? "From the European perspective, every single thing involving the animal—the weight of the tether bar, the amount of flow to the nipple—it's amazing, when you read the regulations, how specific they are," Jamison said.

Another example is an EU mandate of 800 sq cm per hen in a cage. Dr. Jamison said that if the United States were to go immediately to that standard, it would bankrupt the cage layer business. Also coming in the European Union is a requirement to provide laying hens with the ability to nest, take a dust bath, and perch.

Initially European veterinarians were being called on to define animal well-being. "But here's the problem: defining animal welfare is a social process, a mystical process; it's not scientific," Dr. Jamison said. "How well is welfare, how humane is humane?"

The solution has been an ongoing trend to change the language to protecting the dignity and intrinsic self-worth of animals through legislation. "It's already become a federal law in Switzerland, and the European Union is debating this process."

"What's happening in Europe is going to happen here, and you're going to have to face the consequences, as veterinarians," Dr. Jamison predicted. Four underlying phenomena the United States has in common with Europe led him to this view: urbanization, anthropomorphism, scientific evidence supporting species equality, and the cultural idea of egalitarianism as protected through rights.

US and European veterinarians are uniquely positioned as the most highly regarded sources of information regarding animal well-being and animal welfare, Dr. Jamison said.

"You are the go-between between people who increasingly view animals as something to be protected for their own worth and an industry that views them as an economic unit of production. You're the only ones in the middle that are capable of doing this. That's a very good place to be as we go through societal changes."

The president of the British Cattle Veterinary Association, Dr. Chris Watson told AABP members, "Wes Jamison started to talk about these issues he termed 'free farming.' In the UK and Europe they appear as 'freedom foods,' 'food assurance,' 'farm assurance'—all these words coming in, and they're causing major problems. Some major decisions are going to have to be made about the way we [veterinarians] do business and the way we organize our practices and our lives. Do keep an eye on these issues in Europe. They will come your way..."