Setting Standards for Farm Animal Production
A healthy animal grows quickly, making the best use of the food it is given, and will produce good quality meat, milk or eggs for humans to eat and produce such as wool and leather for humans to use. A sick or suffering animal will not grow quickly so it costs more to feed. 

It is in farmers' best interests to make sure that the animals in their care are kept healthy throughout their lives.

In the last few years the public has expressed more and more concern about the welfare of farm animals and the types of production systems used in livestock production. This has increased as agricultural production systems have intensified. In general, livestock producers and animal welfare groups have a poor understanding of each others views and this results in unproductive dialog. One reason for this is that the assessment of animal health, welfare or well-being has proved difficult and at times controversial.

Setting standards for farm animal production, and enforcing these standards, is an important step in bridging the gap between producers and consumers. These standardsare also assist in the production of human food that is of guaranteed safe standards.

Animal Welfare:
Four different approaches have been used, alone, or in combination, to determine animal welfare. These approaches can be used as a basis for farm animal standards.

The concept is that if animal is, for example, growing well, breeding, producing milk at optimum rates, its welfare must be acceptable. Clearly if an animal is not being adequately fed or is diseased then its growth and reproduction will be adversely affected. Using this as the sole basis for welfare assessment often leads to the intensive systems showing equal or superior performance to extensive or organic systems. This is a relatively insensitive measure of animal welfare and is now regarded as too narrow a criterium, but is useful in combination with others.
Animal health and disease
An animal's welfare is disadvantaged if it diseased. This may be related to the type of production system. For example, overcrowding may lead to increased problems of respiratory or enteric diseases. A solution used, for example in intensive poultry rearing, is to use antibiotics prophylactically (administered in feed) but this is treating the symptom rather than the cause of the problem. In general problems of parasitism are greater in animals that are outside and have access to free range compared to intensively reared animals. Conversely housed animals may suffer considerable incidence of lameness compared with those that are free range.
Physiology describes the workings of the animal e.g. respiration, blood pressure and heart rate. While the body normally attempts to maintain a steady state (homeostasis) it has mechanisms allowing a departure from the steady state in response to various stimuli. For example if an animal is threatened it will release adrenaline and other hormones to prepare it to fight or flee. Stressors such as climate, changed environment, noise, high animal density etc. may also cause stress. In contrast to stress caused by a predator, thse are likely to result in chronic exposure to a stress factor. In these circumstances the animal is frustrated in its attempts to resolve the issue (it cannot fight or flee) and the increased levels of stress-related hormones may lead to immune suppression and gastric ulceration. This has led to the use of blood samples to measure hormone levels to determine if an animal is stressed. A problem is that the technique is by itself invasive and may itself create stress. An alternative approach is to measure physiological parameters such as respiration and heart rate, which are affected by stress, by telemetry therefore avoid this complication. Animals reared in free-range conditions are less likely to
Studies indicate that observing the behavior of an animal may give the most reliable clues as to its welfare. By observing behavior of farm animals in their natural environment and then comparing these with behaviors on the farm it may be possible to determine welfare. For example pigs in the wild like to root around, make nests for littering and so on. If kept in a barren environment, in which they are prevented from carrying out these behaviors, they may become frustrated. This may lead to the pig carrying our seemingly pointless repetitive stereotypic behavior. Examples of this are bar biting and pacing up and down (also seen in zoo anmals where a solution is to enrich the animals environment). There may also be an increase in aggressive behavior (e.g. tail biting, cannibalism). By comparing behavior in different environments it is therefore possible to examine realtioships between the production system and animal welfare.

Although specific to the UK, the organisations outlined below are responsible for the establishement of farm animal production standards that will also be relevant elsewhere, especially in areas where such standards have yet to be established. The adoption of clear and unambiguous standards has advantages for both the consumers and for the farmers.

UK Register of Organic Food Standards (UKROFS)

The United Kingdom Register of Organic Food Standards (UKROFS) was established by the organisation Food from Britain at the request of the Minister of Agriculture in 1987. The function of UKROFS is to provide a set of national standards and to provide a certification and inspection scheme.  A variety of different voluntary standards exist under the co-ordinating umbrella of UKROFS. They include:

Producers may apply for registration with UKROFS or one of the above private sector bodies which are registered with it. For example, the Symbol scheme for organic poultry production is run by the Soil Association Organic Marketing Company Ltd. This scheme has high standards for producers to follow if they wish to use their organic symbol for eggs or "table birds", providing consumers with the best available quality produce. The requirements cover the type of housing, flock density in relation to land and housing, feeding and management.

Related standards for production of farm animals in the UK include:

Information on the US Animal Welfare Act and Regulations can be accessed at the following web site:

The Freedom Food Standards

Freedom Food Ltd is an independent, non-profit making organization set up by the RSPCA to improve farm animal welfare in the UK. The Freedom Food label on meat, eggs and dairy products is your assurance that the product has come from animals reared, transported and slaughtered in accordance with welfare standards compiled by the RSPCA.

Freedom Food's welfare standards are written by the RSPCA's farm animal specialists in consultation with veterinary surgeons, farm animal experts and producers. The standards are based on the needs of the animals and are written around scientific research and practical farming experience.

Welfare standards have been written for the following species: sheep, chickens, turkeys, laying hens, ducks, beef cattle, dairy cattle and pigs. The standards are regularly reviewed and amended according to the latest research.

The RSPCA standards are based on five freedoms that all farm animals deserve:

Freedom from fear and distress
All who manage and handle livestock need to understand the basics of animal behaviour, in order to avoid stress to animals, particularly when they are being moved, loaded or unloaded. Mixing different social groups, ages and sexes of animals can also be very stressful and even result in injury. Freedom Food requires that this risk is minimised.
Freedom from pain, injury and disease
Animals must be protected from injury and from elements which may cause pain or ill health. Their environment must be well managed to promote good health and they must receive swift veterinary attention whenever necessary. The standards require all farms to have a Veterinery Health Plan.
Freedom from hunger and thirst
Diet must be satisfying, appropriate and safe. Bullying and competition during feeding are minimised by specifying generous feeding and drinking space allowances. The animals must have continuous access to clean, fresh water.
Freedom from discomfort
A clean, dry, comfortable bedded lying area and plenty of space to move around must be provided, as well as shelter to protect animals from the weather. The RSPCA standards stipulate space allowances to ensure that all animals have adequate room to lie down comfortably, groom themselves, and get up and down easily. The environment must take into account the animals' welfare needs and be designed to protect them from physical and thermal discomfort.
Freedom to express normal behaviour providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animals' own kind. For example, a laying hen must be able to perch, dust bathe, move around, stretch, and flap their wings, as well as have a safe, comfortable resting area and a separate nest box area in which to lay their eggs. The compulsary provision of bedding for pigs not only means that there is a comfortable lying place, it also enriches the environment by giving an opportunity for exploration, rooting behaviour and play.

Examples of Free Range Poultry Housing Standards

The Soil Association Organic Food and Farming Standards:
Extracted from Revision 11 Nov 1997 pp71,72

These requirements generally work on a recommendation of best practice and a permitted upper limit.

General Standards

Standards relating specifically to Laying Birds Standards relating specifically to Fattening Birds
Recommended Housing
Housing designed for a maximum of:
    18kg (live weight mature birds)/sqM floor area
    75% of floor area littered
    25% area as a raised slatted or weld mesh roosting area with enclosed droppings collection area below

Freedom Foods Standards
Extracted from The RSPCA Welfare Standards for Laying Hens January 1997. The standards are based on the FAWC "Five Freedoms"
   1. Freedom from hunger or thirst
   2. Freedom from discomfort
   3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease
   4. Freedom to express normal behaviour
   5. Freedom from fear and distress

Although these "Freedoms" define ideal states, they provide a comprehensive framework for the assessment of the welfare of an animal, whether on farm, in transit, or at a place of slaughter.

[Livestock & Environment Toolbox Home]