Animal Welfare: European Commission supports research to improve animal breeding and food quality

How are animals fed and treated? In the aftermath of the mad cow and other food scare crises, European consumers are more and more concerned about “farm to fork” food safety and where their food comes from.

EU research can help improve animal breeding and living conditions. The European Commission discussed farm animal welfare research at European level with researchers and other stakeholders during a seminar held in Brussels yesterday. Participants addressed results achieved so far by EU-supported research, and identified European Union’s requirements for future research in this area. The Commission currently supports projects directly related to animal welfare with €7.5 million. In addition, several animal health projects also contain aspects of welfare research. Research projects examined transport of cattle over long distances, animal welfare in organic farming, feather pecking in poultry and consumer concerns. This is the first time that scientists involved in EU-funded research are brought together with representatives of consumer and welfare groups to discuss how research can help implement and develop innovative animal welfare and food safety policies.

Improving animal welfare is an increasingly important aspect of intensive livestock production due, to a large extent, to increased consumer concern about the source of animal products. The European Commission has supported animal welfare research projects under the current and previous European research and development Framework programmes. These projects focus directly on welfare-related research and also on public opinion about animal welfare issues. The forthcoming Sixth Framework programme (2002-2006) will look into animal welfare as a part of policy-related research, with the aim of providing healthy food supplies and exploring new fields of research.

Recently completed and ongoing projects from the Fourth and Fifth Framework programmes, include work on transport of cattle over long distances, animal welfare in organic farming, poultry genetics and feather pecking in chickens and a study on public attitudes to welfare issues (see annex for details). Other projects have tackled important issues such as welfare of veal calf production, genes associated with stress in pigs and locomotory dysfunction in turkeys. Projects involve partners from countries throughout the EU and the associated states.

Beyond the projects leading to direct improvements for animal welfare and food quality, the project on organic farming revealed that, while there is evidence that organic standards have a positive impact on animal welfare, animal health on organic farms is not necessarily better than on conventional farms. The project on consumer opinion was made complex due to the difference between what the public says it wants and actual purchasing behaviour regarding animal products. Nevertheless, the project provides a base on which to build both research and policy that meet society’s demands.

The demand for more welfare-conscious production systems may also engender costs that have an impact on the trade of animals and animal products both within the EU and between the EU and the rest of the world. According to the Treaty of Amsterdam, the European Commission must take into account animal welfare issues when formulating policy and it regularly consults a scientific committee on animal welfare issues.

Under the next Framework programme (2002-2006) research into animal welfare is planned as a part of policy-related research as well as in the context of providing a healthy food supply and potential research areas will be defined in the near future. The workshop, thus, comes at an opportune time for EU-supported welfare research.

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