The agenda for welfare commitments in food animals is primarily driven by ‘non-meat eater’ groups, says Jose Linares, DVM, manager for veterinary services at CEVA Animal Health. His presentation last fall to the U.S. Animal Health Association (USAHA) committee on animal welfare holds true today, noting that some requirements in the Global Animal Partnership (GAP) Standards are moving targets. The GAP standards are often arbitrary or prescriptive and in some cases, the requirements don’t address sustainability in a balanced and holistic manner.
When a country’s people are hungry, it’s more difficult to implement and enforce animal welfare guidelines, but “food surpluses allow a society to grow, learn and work toward common goals including food animal welfare,” Linares says. “There’s some good in this debate, and we have improved animal welfare, but we have to be careful about moving the goalpost too quickly.”
The standards are particularly challenging when the conversation is driven by people who don’t understand the physiology of animals and their ultimate needs.
Linares’ overview focused on the U.S. poultry industry, but his comments have application in all species. Like the pork industry, the poultry industry has changed dramatically in the last 50 years. Birds are larger and faster growing. The U.S. produces about 9 billion broilers that can grow to 4 lbs. in about 48 days. By comparison, broilers in Asia take about 12 weeks to reach market weight.
“They’re very skinny, but that’s what the people there like, and that’s okay,” Linares says.
At issue are several animal-welfare concerns in the GAP protocols, including light intensity, natural light, stocking density and breed selection. In addition, chickens that are given antibiotics, ionophores, beta agonists, sulfa drugs and/or arsenic-based drugs are prohibited from being marketed as “step-rated," which is considered punitive.
“It goes against the mission of veterinarians because if birds get sick and you need to treat them, you can’t give them what they need and still sell them within the GAP standards,” Linares says.
He explains that when birds had more natural light, they showed increased activity, but they also had decreased livability and a higher feed-conversion ratio. Also to be considered is the cost of implementation, he says.
In terms of stocking density, Linares says there isn’t enough research to support the GAP standard and the stocking density recommendations are arbitrary. In addition, the standards require that no mammalian or avian by-products be used in the feed, but Linares says this doesn’t make sense from a sustainability standpoint because other feed ingredients aren’t as efficient or cost-effective.
Similar Issues with Eggs
Growers see high demand for cage-free eggs from restaurants, food manufacturers, food service, hotels and travel companies who have made a commitment to switch to cage-free eggs. However, those customers don’t realize the animal welfare implications of their decision.
A research project by the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply studied three housing systems: conventional cage (CC), enriched colony (EC) and cage-free aviary (AV) on a commercial farm in the Midwest that utilized all three housing systems at the same location. Keel bone (an extension of the breastbone) fractures, pecking/cannibalism and fecal-oral exposure were all higher in the cage-free system.
“Birds need a stable social structure to control destructive behaviors and now we’re exposing them to new dangers that weren’t there before,” Linares says. “They are establishing their pecking order – literally.”
It’s all about the production of clean and unbroken eggs, he says, which is at the heart of the historical evolution of commercial layer housing design. The evolution to cage-free requires a significant commitment to retrofitted buildings.
“The [consumer] demand is not there,” Linares says. “It’s troublesome because people are just buying eggs based on cost.”
What many non-producers don’t realize is that performance reflects health and welfare. If animals are sick or uncomfortable, they won’t perform as well, so it’s to producers’ advantage to take good care of their animals or birds. Animals are being bred to convert more feed to protein, which benefits consumers and society in general.
“Let the animals tell you what they want or how they’re doing,” Linares points out. “When producing animals for eggs or meat, we’re trying to reduce costs and over time, we can reduce stocking densities but it needs to be over time.”
The poultry industry evolved to satisfy society’s demand for an ample, safe, affordable and sustainable poultry supply, and it will continue to evolve. “We need dialogue and collaboration among genuine stakeholders to work toward science-based standards and requirements that improve [food-animal] welfare,” Linares says.
The U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Poultry and eggs is helping growers reach that goal. It seeks to maintain the United States’ reputation as “a trusted global leader in environmentally sound, socially responsible and economically viable poultry production by advancing, supporting and communicating continuous improvement through leadership, innovation, multi-stakeholder engagement and collaboration.”
Editor’s note: To hear more updates on animal welfare, foreign animal diseases and much more, plan to attend the USAHA Annual Meeting, to take place on October 24-30, 2019 in Providence, Rhode Island. Interested participants may register at https://www.usaha.org/2019-annual-meeting.