02/05/2024 2 min

What scientific criteria can be used to develop animal welfare labelling for food products?

Consumers are increasingly concerned about the living conditions of the animals used to produce foodstuffs such as meat, dairy products and eggs. ANSES is publishing guidelines for labelling products of animal origin specifically with respect to farm animal welfare. Implementing this proposal would harmonise current and future labelling systems. One of its main features is that the welfare assessment is based on scientific indicators measured directly on the animals, and not just on their rearing conditions. Another of its distinguishing features is that it takes account not only of the living conditions of the food-producing animals themselves, but also those of their parents.

Proposed five-level classification

Labelling systems designed to inform consumers about the welfare of food-producing animals are on the rise in Europe. However, the criteria used vary widely from one labelling system to another. The European Union is planning to harmonise labelling. ANSES has thus carried out an expert appraisal to establish a scientific basis for animal welfare labelling that can be put forward to livestock sector players. In its guidelines, the Agency recommends adopting a system of five welfare levels, from the highest (A) to the lowest (E). Level E corresponds solely to compliance with the requirements imposed by European legislation on animal welfare, whether during rearing, transport or slaughter. This classification, which is easy for consumers to understand, should also help producers to gradually take better account of animal welfare.

Focusing criteria on animal “welfare status”

Most current animal welfare labels only consider the rearing methods used and the means employed to improve them. “That’s not enough”, explains Julie Chiron, Expert Appraisal Coordinator at ANSES. “A laying hen farm may have perches, but if the hens do not use them because they are not easily accessible, for example, this feature will not contribute to their welfare.” The scientists in the ANSES working group therefore recommend that the indicators to be assessed should focus primarily on the animal's welfare status, i.e. be based on measurements taken on the animal itself. These requirements are based on the definition of animal welfare( PDF in French) proposed by ANSES in 2018: “The welfare of an animal is its positive mental and physical state related to the fulfilment of its physiological and behavioural needs and its expectations. This state varies according to the animal's perception of the situation.”

Considering the welfare of breeding animals

Furthermore, the assessment of animal welfare should not stop at food-producing animals: it should also include the selective breeding and reproduction farms that are designed to improve genetic characteristics and supply food-producing animals. “In some sectors, breeding animals are reared abroad and little is known about their living conditions”, explains Julie Chiron. “This criterion will require the sectors to organise themselves to ensure that they have this information. Also, we cannot claim that a production process respects animal welfare if we know nothing about the living conditions of the previous generation, whose rearing is subject to specific constraints, particularly health constraints.” When no information on parents is available, the experts consider that products should not be given a classification higher than level C.

Also, we cannot claim that a production process respects animal welfare if we know nothing about the living conditions of the previous generation

Julie Chiron
Expert Appraisal Coordinator

Ensuring that all the factors that could degrade animal welfare are included

The experts have identified factors that can affect an animal's well-being at every stage of its life: genetic characteristics, rearing methods, the breeder's practices and training, housing, feeding, breeding, transport and slaughter, as well as measures taken to ensure good health, and limiting the use of painful practices. For each factor, the working group proposed an assessment protocol based on scientific criteria with related measurable indicators, and recommendations for improving animal welfare. For example, when it comes to feeding, the proposed criteria are that the animal should have easily accessible feed suited to its species and age, but also that it should be able to satisfy behavioural needs linked to feeding activity, such as grazing (for ruminants), foraging (for pigs) and pecking and scratching (for poultry).

A reference framework to be developed by the various players in this area

The work that has been carried out is aimed primarily at French and European scientists and stakeholders who are planning to develop a reference framework for animal welfare labelling”, specifies Florence Étoré, who heads up the unit in charge of assessing risks associated with animal health and welfare. “This framework will need to be tailored to each sector or category of animal concerned, and jointly developed with the various players in this sector: livestock professionals, animal protection associations and scientists.

The framework must also be accessible and transparent, so that consumers can be informed about the indicators used to assess animal welfare and obtain an overall score. Finally, the experts emphasise that the cost of improving animal welfare and its assessment should be borne by all stakeholders, given the ethical issues involved and society's growing calls for greater consideration to be given to animal welfare.