International cattle welfare standards set

Jun 1, 2012

In a landmark move, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) has set welfare standards for production livestock. The new guidelines specifically address the welfare and living conditions of cattle bred for meat production.

At its 80th General Session, OIE adopted new welfare standards for livestock production systems. The new standards were approved by OIE’s 178 members, other than South Africa, and address welfare measurements, nutrition and housing details. The standards will be incorporated into OIE’s Terrestrial Animal Health Code, section seven, which deals with animal welfare.

The newly adopted standards will “provide for: criteria and indicators to measure the welfare of beef cattle, nutritious quality of feed, supplementary lighting for cattle that do not have access to natural light, bedding and many other aspects of cattle breeding conditions,” according to an OIE official statement.

OIE General Director Bernard Vallat said that the agreement was historic.

“In 2011, the delegates of the OIE did not reach a consensus on a text on animal welfare of broiler chickens and this year’s consensus on livestock is a huge step forward.”

The exact text of the new standards has not yet been released, but it will soon be included in OIE’s Terrestrial Animal Health Code following the completion of the vetting and editing process.

Though the standards are the first of their kind, the impacts are uncertain given the limited scope of the new standards and the fact OIE acts in an advisory, rather than compliance, role. Vallat admitted that the new standards would be difficult to follow in countries like the U.S. and Canada which employ confinement feeding operations.

OIE countries are supposed to apply its standards, but the group has no enforcement or sanctioning power over those countries who do not. “This is what they agreed upon, but we are not the United Nations, we have no Blue Helmets,” Vallat said.

Both the U.S. and Canada are member nations to OIE and have permanent delegates with the group.

OIE’s official announcement of the new standards noted that issues such as hormone use in food animals and growth promoting feed additives fall under the prevue of the Commission of the Codex Alimentarius.

OIE’s vision of animal welfare is guided by a number of points. Among the most relevant to animal agriculture is the “Five Freedoms.” These are:

• Freedom from hunger, thirst and malnutrition
• Freedom from fear and distress
• Freedom physical and thermal discomfort
• Freedom from pain, injury and disease
• Freedom to express normal behavior patterns

It is important to note, however, that the OIE animal welfare standards are introduced with the detail that the use of animals in agriculture (and other areas) “makes a major contribution to the well being of people.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor