In this long interview the Policy Officer at the European Commission’s Animal Welfare Unit, Denis Simonin, talks about how animal welfare has become a high profile topic for EU citizens and how animal welfare has developed on the EU agenda. While the farming sector often has been slow to react to criticism from the surrounding society, Mr. Simonin says the fur sector has understood that openness and transparency works well. Having progressed a lot on measuring animal welfare through the WelFur programme, the European fur sector is well advanced and can use its experience to show the way for other farming sectors keen to make progress.
Can you describe the development of the concept of animal welfare, in particular how and why have animal welfare issues become more and more important on the EU political agenda?
The concept of animal welfare appeared by the end of the nineteenth century and it developed in Europe in parallel with industrialization and urbanization. It is indeed with these two processes that domestic animals previously used in daily life for many practical tasks progressively disappeared from our view due to the development and the success of the industry in replacing them by machines. The industrialization has also changed the way to see animals. On one hand, some animals become objects treated like machine, and on the other hand they become subjects treated like humans. In addition, the process of production has become more and more hidden from the view of the general public. Most people today are only in direct contact with pet animals and it changes not surprisingly their perception on how animals should be treated.
It is therefore logical that animal welfare becomes progressively more and more important in the EU agenda. It started in the 1970’s and expanded with various pieces of legislation in the 1990’s. The legislation now covers all farm species with specific rules for animals subject to intensive farming. In addition it includes the transport and slaughter of all farm species. There is also legislation on laboratory animals. All these changes have also been reflected in the various changes in the EU treaties since today there is a general article (Article 13 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU) which clearly states that animals are sentient beings.
In the wave of a series of food crisis (hormones, mad cow disease, dioxine) there has been a progressive mistrust in the food chain. It has been for example expressed in the reluctance of the public to innovations while there is an increased interest in the ethical dimension of food. Animal welfare fits perfectly in this trend and explains why it has become a high profile topic for EU consumers.
Finally it is important also to stress that in parallel to the increasing societal concerns for animals, there has been in the last 40 years an immense scientific development on animal welfare. Animal welfare is not only an ethical concern but an important field of research. Research findings have been essential to clarify the debate between the different stakeholders and establish legal requirements based on scientific evidence. The same development occurred at international level where from 2005 the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) has progressively developed global standards on animal welfare. Today there are around 16 global recommendations on animal welfare and the OIE continues to work and expand its scope.
How do you see animal welfare issues develop on the EU agenda in the future?
It is difficult to predict the future in particular as regards animal welfare issues which are strongly influenced by complex factors, the political dimension being particular present. Today the Commission perspectives are about three main directions: improving enforcement, developing stakeholders’ dialogue and exchange of good practices, and promoting our standards internationally.
There is still a lot of demand for legislation on animal welfare either to renew existing rules or establish new ones. The Commission is of the view that the current framework needs first to be fully applied before considering revising or establishing new rules. In addition due to the increased societal demand, the industry, and the fur industry is a typical example with the WelFur project, has more and more understood the need to develop their own strategy on animal welfare. Most of the farming sector now understands that the concept of ‘black box’ – do not ask, do not look, just buy – is not anymore working in a society where people are constantly connected. Animal welfare organisations have understood this for a long time and use social media. The farming sector has often been slow to react, but experience has shown, in particular in the fur farming sector, which is highly controversial, that transparency and openness works very well.
The Commission is presently considering how it could enhance dialogue and cooperation between stakeholders on animal welfare so that there is a better exchange of good practices and success stories.
I also hope that the possible future development of EU reference centres for animal welfare will help farmers and authorities to develop animal welfare indicators. On this aspect the European fur sector is well advanced and could show the way and share its experience with other farming sectors which are keen to make progress.
How do you see practical animal welfare measures like consumer labelling and farm-level certification develop generally in Europe and as European legislation?
As I previously said, the Commission is now very cautious about proposing new legislation in general and in particular on animal welfare. We have achieved major progress like the ban of battery cages for laying hens or the group housing of sows, both measures which are quite unique in the world at this scale. Compulsory labelling has been put in place in Europe for table eggs and is very successful. But certification and information to consumers are mainly a matter for businesses rather than legislation. The legislation against false claims already exists but what is important is that businesses develop their own stories to valorize their efforts on animal welfare. A number of private standards which include animal welfare already exist in various Member States.
Furthermore the international standard organization ISO will present in December a technical specification on animal welfare. This specification refers to the international recommendations of the OIE that I previously mentioned.
This shows that at a global level major players in the food chain have understood the need to go ahead without legislation. The same approach has been taken by the fur industry which has developed its own approach. With this in mind, I don’t think that the Commission will propose now legislation on labelling on animal welfare.
In the scientific community there is broad agreement that animal indicators is a good way to measure animal welfare. From your position in the administration of the EU, what are the perspectives on animal indicators?
First I would like to clarify that there is today a lot of talk about animal based indicators as if they were a unique alternative to measure animal welfare. For a long time resource based indicators, for example measuring environmental parameters such as space allowances or temperature, have been the only ones used to measure animal welfare. There are indeed a lot of resource based indicators in the legislation which establish maximum or minimum limit to meet.
The advantage of animal based indicators is that they reflect directly the welfare of the animals and give the opportunity for more flexible solutions depending on the context. However, they have also disadvantages and among them the difficulty to be calibrated since they are often based on human observations and hence need a lot of training for the observers, the time needed to collect them . They are also more difficult to check by officials who visit establishments temporarily and subject to legal uncertainty since they mainly rely on human observations.
It is therefore better to be pragmatic and talk about animal welfare indicators, both based on measuring on animals and on the environment. In the context of official controls, indicators should be chosen so that they are feasible in a context of external inspections. For farmers, indicators can be very different since they can perform regular observations themselves. The two approaches are complementary if there is a reliable system of management which can be audited externally.
After the adoption of the revised official controls regulation in 2017, the Commission intends to establish EU reference centres on animal welfare. One of their tasks will be to develop animal welfare indicators as possible means of compliance to the legislation.
In the WelFur project, indicators are based on the approach of the EU research project Welfare Quality which was mainly designed for external audits in a context of possible certification. The context is mainly commercial and we have to see how we can use this experience to reduce administrative burden and make links with official controls.
If an animal use industry were to safeguard its future existence politically, what policies, in your opinion, would be important for such an industry to carry through?
This is an extremely broad question that goes far beyond animal welfare, touching upon and integrating with other horizontal issues such as sustainability. It is clear that animal welfare is a key issue because the perception of animals has drastically involved in our societies. The general public, and not only in Europe, becomes more and more sensitive to animals, as I mentioned before. Any industry that relates to animal production should therefore be very careful in developing standards that meet these expectations and make sure that people are aware of and accept them. The approach taken by the European fur farming sector is perfectly in this line. Now, it is clear that there are various other societal issues. In all those issues, it is important that citizens and consumers are properly informed of the process of production. They have to assume their own responsibility in buying an animal product. I think that most people accept the principle of using animals for human purposes as long as it is done properly and it does not involve suffering.