This research article was written by Máirín-Rua Ní Aodha, Chairperson of the International Veterinary Students’ Association (IVSA) Standing Committee on Animal Welfare (SCAW). The article is based on research by Matthias Grembler and Rafi Putra Ananta, Research & Data Analysts for SCAW.
What is an ECI?
A European Citizen’s Initiative (ECI) is a framework through which EU citizens can bring attention to issues they care about at an EU parliamentary level. If an ECI is brought to the European Parliament, Members of Parliament are obliged to discuss the issue and give an answer to citizens on what action will be taken (if any) within a six-month period from initial submission. Unfortunately, an ECI carries no obligation for resolution for the issue itself.
ECI’s are usually spearheaded and managed by interest groups. In the case of End the Cage Age, Compassion in World Farming took the lead on this ECI. The current discussion within parliament is the culmination of 10 years of work, which included public education programs, signature collection, and lobbying government at local and national levels. At least 1 million verified signatures are needed for the topic to be brought before the parliament. The End the Cage Age campaign surpassed that requirement, with 1,397,113 signatures.
The initiative has garnered huge international support, with 170 animal welfare organizations from around the world currently supporting it. These organizations include some of the big international names in animal welfare such as PETA, Animals International, and Four Paws.
What does this mean for animals?
Germany, Luxembourg, and Austria will outlaw enriched cages for battery hens by 2025. Enriched cages must provide at least 750 cm² per bird, which is 20%-36% more space per birth than their predecessors. This housing system offered some very rudimentary enrichment materials, such as perches and a small area of ‘scratching material’–usually in the corner of the cage. The EU mandate currently doesn’t define the required area of the scratching pad.  Litter should also be provided, however, the material and composition of this litter are not defined. Therefore, several farms simply deliver portions of feed onto the scratching pad as a litter substitute. The importance of scratching and foraging behaviors to hens should not be underestimated. Studies have shown   that birds will spend 36.6% of their waking hours performing scratching and feeding behaviors, even when a stable food source is available. This is significant when we consider that the other 24 member states may continue to use such caging systems.
Slovakia is following close behind, the government has committed to phasing out enriched cages by 2030. We asked Alexandra Beck, from Open Wing Alliance, to outline what we should be aiming for when housing hens on an industrial scale. She described the following as essential criteria to consider when designing hen housing:
“For hens, like other farmed animals, the ability to express their natural behaviors is crucial for wellbeing. This means that hens need space to be able to stretch, move around freely, and perform the following species-specific behaviors.
A. Nesting - Hens are highly motivated to access a discrete enclosed nesting site, especially around the time of egg-laying;
B. Foraging & Pecking - Hens spend a substantial portion of their day performing foraging behavior like pecking and scratching at the ground. When hens are unable to perform these behaviors, their frustrations can lead to injurious feather-pecking;
C. Dust-bathing - Ample space is needed for hens to engage in this naturally rewarding behavior. Dust-bathing helps hens maintain healthy plumage and reduce lice and mites;
D. Roosting & Perching - Hens are highly motivated to perch or roost on elevated structures during much of the day and especially at night.”
Table: Open Wing Alliance demonstrates the ability of hens to perform these crucial behaviors in each housing system.
- In Austria, cages for meat rabbits have been banned;
In Belgium, rabbits raised for meat and breeding females will no longer be kept in cages by 2025;
In Germany, barren cages for rabbits will be illegal from 2024;
The Netherlands has banned barren cages for rabbits.
Photo: Rabbits housed in an intensive system without environmental enrichment. The campaign seeks to outlaw such conditions for fattening rabbits. Photo: Compassion in World Farming
In Denmark, sow stalls may only be used for 3 days after insemination in new pig housing and this will apply to all systems by 2035; Denmark also has a target to keep 10% of its breeding herd out of farrowing crates by 2020;
In Germany, sow stalls will be illegal from 2028 and farrowing crates will be illegal after 5 days following farrowing from 2035-2037;
The Netherlands only permits sow stalls for the first four days after insemination;
Sweden has banned all cages for sows – both sow stalls and farrowing crates.
Dr. Laura Highman, the FAI’s Veterinary Consultant, made the case for phasing out all confinement systems in pig production to enable species-specific behavioral opportunities as a necessity, not a luxury.
“In order to facilitate normal behaviors in pigs, and the opportunity to live a ‘life worth living’ or ‘a good life,’ we can provide them with a constant supply of manipulable materials and toys, fibrous foods, deep substrate for rooting, and the space to move around in their environment and perform synchronous lying behaviors (Mullan et al., 2011). Supporters of farrowing crate systems argue that this pen infrastructure was designed to reduce laid-on piglet mortality, and coupled with genetic selection of sows for litter size, this represents a highly efficient pig production system. However, genetic selection for maternal behaviors (Andersen et al., 2005) and slightly smaller litter sizes of larger piglets can help to improve survivability of piglets in free-farrowing systems, and can facilitate normal behaviors in commercial production.”
Photo: Free farrowing systems have been pitched as the future of pig farming by animal welfare organizations. For this system to work, sows must be bred selectively for strong maternal instincts and smaller litter sizes. Photo: freefarrowing.org
What does this mean for vets?
The proposed changes would require a shift in the veterinary hive mind. We would need to clarify what the new normal would be, and what would be considered the minimum acceptable standard for farmed animal welfare. Dr. Laura Highman encourages us to be more critical of the systems we work with; “As vets, I believe it is time for us to be constructively critical about the systems deployed to farm the animals under our care, and support a shift towards those that generate balanced outcomes for all aspects of animal welfare, including physical health and psychological wellbeing.”
Individual member states have already begun reevaluating the role of veterinarians in their food system, and readjusting veterinary education accordingly. France’s INRA Science & Policy paper from 2018, outlines improvements being made to the training of veterinarians working in slaughterhouses, “Research evaluating animal stress in the slaughterhouse starts with identifying the procedures that provoke the stressful procedures and assessing their impact on animal emotional state and meat quality. The findings have been used to improve the training of slaughterhouse workers and veterinarians and for refining the risk analyses.”
A model proposed in Frontiers in Veterinary Science  incorporated veterinary experts in the earliest stage of dialogue around changes to agricultural systems. A modified Delphi model was used to collect expert opinions on the highest priority animal welfare issues in the UK agricultural sector. Experts were asked to rank welfare issues for different species based on severity and prevalence. Unsurprisingly, the End the Cage Age campaign is attempting to resolve welfare issues that rank very highly for pigs and poultry. For pigs, the 3rd and 4th most important issues were “Behavioral needs not [being] met” and “Poor housing design.” Similarly for poultry, the issues of “Inability to express natural behaviors” and “Inappropriate housing conditions” were tied for second place.
The veterinary community is waking up to the fact that conventional veterinary education does not prepare us for the scientific and ethical challenges that dealing with animal welfare presents. The World Veterinary Association (WVA) summarizes it as such:
“Although veterinary undergraduate training covers aspects of animal welfare, a higher profile for animal welfare matters needs to be given in veterinary curricula. In the trade of animals and animal products, international veterinary certification increasingly includes elements of animal welfare. Veterinarians need to be sufficiently qualified in the fields of animal welfare science and ethics, complemented by continuous post-graduate professional development courses, to be able to meet the demands of compliance with animal welfare requirements during the ‘stable-to-table’ process for products of animal origin and to ensure effective enforcement of the relevant standards.
While animal welfare has been taught in veterinary schools around the world, there are many areas where the necessary technical resources were not available. The World Society for the Protection of Animals took the initiative and developed a syllabus for animal welfare teaching, ‘Concepts in Animal Welfare’ , as a resource to be used in veterinary undergraduate training.”
Fortunately, there is a wealth of material available online for veterinarians to peruse. The University Federation for Animal Welfare has high quality, Open Access articles available here Animal Welfare Publications - UFAW.
SCAW is currently preparing a Journal on Animal Welfare, focusing on animal welfare issues within industrial agriculture. Should you wish to contribute, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Table: A summary of the ranking of animal welfare issues according to species. Experts were asked to assess a number of issues and rank them in a 2 step process
 49 Savory CJ, Wood-Gush DGM, and Duncan IJH. 1978. Feeding behaviour in a population of domestic fowls in the wild. Applied Animal Ethology 4:13-27. 50
 Dawkins MS. 1989. Time budgets in Red Junglefowl as a baseline for the assessment of welfare in domestic fowl. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 24:77-80.
 Rioja-Lang Fiona C., Connor Melanie, Bacon Heather J., Lawrence Alistair B., Dwyer Cathy M. Prioritization of Farm Animal Welfare Issues Using Expert Consensus. Frontiers in Veterinary Science 6 2020
 World Society for the Protection of Animals. (2000). – Concepts in animal welfare. World Society for the Protection of Animals, London.
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