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Anderton: Workshop on Animal Welfare

1 April 2008 Speech


Workshop on Animal Welfare
Brentwood Hotel, Wellington

I would like to commend the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee for being proactive in addressing animal welfare issues.

The issues around animal welfare are always topical.

They are particularly sensitive for New Zealand because so much of our economy is based on animal-derived products.

But we have interests far beyond the directly economic.

We are not only farmers. We are also consumers and, fundamentally, we are guardians of our own ethical behaviour.

Ethics and humanity are central to animal welfare.

I'm not naive about the issues. Starting out in the workforce in the fifties and sixties, I spent enough time in the freezing works to see a few things that would make us cringe today. It made me cringe then.

It's not hard to think of examples where the issues are troubling - from sow stalling to broiler chickens and more.

Most sectors are affected. For example, in dairying, herd sizes have grown from the days when a cockie made a living milking seventy or eighty cows to an average today of over three hundred. If intensification leads to stresses in the system - like declining reproductive performance, thin cows, and lameness - then there are animal welfare issues to confront.

We need to be practical in confronting challenges. I've seen enough of our agriculture to know that practical demands can leave very little room for sentiment.

And I suggest to you that the most practical approach for New Zealand is to have high ethical standards. Standards that are admired around the world.

That won't always mean we agree with other countries about what the most ethical position is, but nor should we be coy about the issues or overcomplicate them.

I've seen a debate, for example, about what the term 'animal welfare' actually means.

The term is very straightforward to the lay person.

To the public, 'animal welfare' means avoiding unnecessary suffering. It means avoiding cruelty. It means providing a reasonable standard of humane care for sentient species.

The public expects that animals we care for should be healthy. An animal should be properly fed and comfortable. Treatment should be received when it is needed. Animals should be destroyed humanely.

There is nothing complicated about these standards or these ideas. It's up to industry to embrace them.

There will be some dispute over how to apply ethical standards in practice. I know that. The example of hens comes to mind. Reasonable people can disagree about best practice because we are unsure what approach reduces suffering most.

The Animal Welfare Act requires a balance of things that are easy to measure, like productivity, reproductive performance and health, with other factors like how an animal feels about its environment.

When it writes codes of welfare the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee considers all of these factors along with issues like the natural behaviour of animals.

We should search for how best to ensure we meet acceptable levels of animal welfare.

We should not approach the search from the perspective of trying to balance productivity with ethical management.

Our ambition should be to do the right thing.

The challenge should be always to do better, and we should look to be innovators and leaders.

For one thing, it is New Zealand's niche in the world.

In our markets consumers are becoming more and more demanding.

They are asking searching questions about issues like environmental responsibility. And they're asking about animal welfare and the quality standards of our production processes.

The future for New Zealand's primary exports will be in having the best answer to those questions. There is no future in trying to compete on price against emerging low cost producers. We have to compete by guaranteeing the quality of our production as a whole. It's not just a matter of an individual producer or two trying to stake out a position. Consumers will form an opinion about the New Zealand brand as a whole.

If we don't meet the expectations of our customers - and even if we can't assure our customers of our standards, then we face potentially very damaging risks to our export base.

Sound ethical standards of animal welfare are our niche and our risk management strategy. And most of all they are the right thing to do.

This is not just a consumer issue. We need to be ahead of the game on our regulatory responses.

In Europe, a welfare quality' research project has been looking at the integration of animal welfare into the food quality chain for five years, with plenty of funding from the European Union.

Forty-four institutes and universities from thirteen European countries and four Latin American countries are involved.

That project is aimed at responding to public concerns and consumer demand with reliable on-farm monitoring systems and product information systems. It is developing practical strategies, specific to each species, to improve animal welfare.

Over in the UK, a variety of animal welfare assurance and certification schemes exist.

The UK's Farm Animal Welfare Council has raised the possibility of national standards of animal welfare. They could see bronze, silver and gold labelling(with bronze being the minimum acceptable standard.)

If that is introduced, it will unquestionably affect us.

We have already been asked by the chairman of the UK Farm Animal Welfare Council, Professor Christopher Wathes, during his visit here in 2006, how we know whether animal welfare standards are being observed.

These are not small issues for us, even if we think we are able to put our own practices favourably up against those of any other country in the world.

I get a huge volume of letters into my office about animal welfare issues.

New Zealand has not been a target of some high profile campaigns - like the World Society for the Protection of Animals campaign against the long-distance transportation of livestock for slaughter. But we need to keep ahead of developments.

Late last year we saw an example of how some misguided campaigns can receive widespread attention. The former Mrs McCartney - Heather Mills - lent her name to a campaign claiming no one can be an environmentalist if they eat meat and dairy products.

Her claim was wrong, of course. But it is a reminder about the need for New Zealanders to have the facts to back up our claims. High profile campaigns that could affect us do come up. Some people could be swayed by them.

We need to be vigilant. We need to make sure our own house is clean. We should also recognise there is a rising tide of consumer activism. Consumers are aware of the quality of what we eat. If we get our act together we can benefit.

The bar is going to keep going up. Other countries are going to lift their game. The science available to help the process is going to get better. The demands of consumers are going to keep increasing. The demands of regulators will, too.

Just as with rising concern about climate, our strategy has to be to get ahead of the wave and ride it. We can't afford to try to fight it off.

We have to be leaders internationally in animal welfare. We should look to integrate our animal welfare practices into our Pure New Zealand image.

Our leadership has to extend to the way we assure the public about the treatment of animals. Our leadership should extend to product labels.

We have to be leaders in measuring animal welfare. We have to be leaders in the techniques, as well as in the substantive results, of our measuring.

I hope this workshop will come up with some positive conclusions about how to meet these standards.

The answers will need some research and science.

The government is coming to the table on that score, with a partnership fund called New Zealand Fast Forward.

Most of you in this room will know about Fast Forward by now.

A $700 million fund is being created to match private sector investment in research and development in the pastoral and food sectors.

I am aware of disappointment among many that the opposition would axe Fast Forward. I think their position is inexplicable.

But I know Fast Forward could help to deepen our research into animal welfare. And therefore it could help improve the market position of our animal-based industries.

We will need to ensure however, that we have the right tools to measure animal welfare.

So one very important priority for research is to find effective indicators of the welfare status of animals in production systems.

It's not always easy. Measuring how an animal 'feels' about its environment is awkward, at least.

Measurement alone is not enough.

We also need clear direction about how to respond when the evidence of our measuring shows animal welfare is being compromised.

This is about much more than blatant disregard for animal welfare that finishes up in court.

It is about how we ensure we intervene and remedy a situation when an indicator shows a deviation from acceptable expectations.

I look forward to hearing the suggestions of this workshop.

I think you will have a lot to contribute about performance auditing and how to measure compliance with minimum standards.

I want to hear your views about consumer assurance schemes.

Do they educate consumers about the real welfare issues in particular production systems?

Are consumers simply relying on the reputation of the organisation giving the assurance, such as when the SPCA provides assurance about eggs - and is that robust enough?

New Zealand has a lot of standing globally in animal welfare matters.

Barry O'Neil of Biosecurity New Zealand was made president of the World Organisation for Animal Health.

David Bayvel, as Director of Animal Welfare, chaired the Permanent Animal Welfare Working Group of the OIE, the international organisation that looks at scientific veterinary information.

This tells me we have expertise and leadership to draw on and it should give us confidence about our progress forwards.

I would like to encourage everyone at this workshop to take a broad view of the issues.

The challenge to us is to look ahead and beyond day to day demands, to the future of animal welfare surveillance and assurance.

So I have much pleasure in formally declaring the workshop open and wish you every success as you get down to work.

ENDS

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