World animal welfare standards under negotiation

PARIS, France, February 24, 2004 (ENS): The first ever global conference on animal welfare opened here on Monday, bringing together the 166 member countries of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and affiliated international organizations. The focus of the conference is the development of international standards and guidelines on the welfare of animals.

Discussions centered on establishing standards and guidelines in four main areas - transport by land, sea transport, humane slaughter for consumption, and the killing of animals for disease control. They are expected to be completed by 2005.

"Any moves to develop international standards have our wholehearted support," said European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection David Byrne.

"The significance of this conference should not be underestimated. It marks the very first opportunity for stakeholders, scientists and governments to debate animal welfare issues in a worldwide perspective."

Animal welfare standards are not defined at an international level except in Conventions by the Council of Europe and in some multilateral agreements. But current World Trade Organization provisions take little account of animal welfare so the European Union cannot require its own animal welfare standards to be respected in third countries.

Byrne said that the European Commission Monday obtained official observer status within the OIE, which will now enable the Commission to advance the EU's view on all international animal health and welfare issues.

European citizens care deeply about animal welfare, said Byrne, and the unanimous decision of the OIE member countries to address animal welfare at this international level confirms the worldwide interest in this issue.

The Commission endorses the OIE's approach of basing animal welfare guidelines and standards on the best available science and setting up expert groups to advise on the specific issues, he said, adding that the creation of guidelines and standards at the OIE level is likely to facilitate their international acceptance.

R. Quintili of the weekly Italian consumers magazine "Il Salvagente" says the attitude of consumers toward animal welfare has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. "The food scares that have occurred all over the world, and the increasing media interest in breeding techniques, have changed the requirement for minimum standards of animal welfare.

Today, 10 years after the mad cow disease crisis struck Great Britain, Quintili said, "Recent statistics have revealed that one in two EU citizens is suspicious of meat and other products of animal origin and has doubts about animal welfare conditions."

Because of the mad cow disease crisis, Quintili said, "a large number of consumers were forced to face the uncomfortable equation: animal = machine, and they realized that the absence of animal comfort has an effect on the safety of food."

Karen Brown of the U.S. Food Marketing Institute told the delegates that in order to achieve real change, "there must be a motivating force and all of the stakeholders need to be involved." This is the premise of the animal welfare program developed for the food retail, wholesale and chain restaurant industries in the United States by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the National Council of Chain Restaurants, she said.

In January 2001 the FMI Board of Directors adopted an animal welfare policy stating that "animals must be raised, transported and processed in a clean, safe environment free from cruelty, abuse or neglect."

FMI members pledged to work cooperatively with their suppliers to promote best practices for each species in order to ensure animal well-being throughout the production process. They agreed that recommendations will be developed working with experts in animal welfare, animal husbandry, veterinary medicine and agricultural production, said Brown, and that best practices will be "communicated broadly to maintain consumer confidence."

Commissioner Byrne raised the point that the main criticism expressed by producers and certain sections of the food industry is that higher welfare standards lead to higher production and supply costs. "The experience within Europe has shown that in many cases there are no significant additional costs in improving animal protection," he said.

"If such costs are experienced, they can be more than recovered by the price differential of superior more animal welfare friendly products, provided that these are effectively marketed and consumers properly informed," Byrne said.

Reminding delegates that markets evolve and adapt in response to consumer demands, "It is encouraging in this regard to see, for example, the shift towards the use of free range eggs by some of the international fast food chains," he said.

The conference continues through Wednesday. Guiding principles on animal welfare are due to be adopted at the General Session of the OIE International Committee in May.

Still, OIE member countries are free to maintain their own animal welfare standards if these are higher than OIE standards.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2004. All Rights Reserved.

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