A fox in charge of the henhouse?

Animal welfare law seems to be an ass. Only you can fix it

If only animals could talk: they’d have plenty to criticise. Like: the unfunded Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), that is reliant upon private donations and bequests, despite its officially sanctioned responsibility for policing and prosecuting companion animal abuse (the SPCA prosecuted 11,000 cases in New Zealand in 2007, saving the government an estimated $5 million). Or the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF), which employs five farm animal welfare inspectors nationwide - one per 10 million animals. Or the seemingly paltry sentences regularly imposed for egregious cases of animal abuse. Or the couple of hundred thousand animals sacrificed annually for research, testing and teaching.

But what I want to focus on here is animals farmed for food. There's a gulf between public sentiment about animal welfare, particularly the welfare of “domestic” animals – as expressed in the recent outpouring of sympathy and anger for this trusty bewildered old soul – and what people are willing or able to afford when they grocery shop. There’s a similar gap between what the Animal Welfare Act promises, and what it's able to deliver.

The problem can be briefly illustrated. Last month, Green Party spokesperson Sue Kedgley asked Minister of Agriculture David Carter for his views on a proposal to recommence live sheep exports from New Zealand to Saudi Arabia. Live animal exports for slaughter ceased in 2003; some live animals are exported, but only for breeding purposes. His reply:

“New Zealand would benefit economically from the resumption of trade. I do not want to speculate on any specific figure, but I can tell the House that the live animal export trade last year was worth a billion dollars to the Australian economy.”

This is neither a National government proposal, nor a party political issue. An application by the Saudi Arabian interest was under consideration by the previous government, and an identical pattern of weighing animals’ interests against human and economic ones can be observed in past statements from the two Jims - Sutton and Anderton - Carter’s predecessors as minister. Clearly, short of a mass conversion to the vegan lifestyle, Carter’s approach is just a fact of life; the Animal Welfare Act itself demands economic considerations.

That Act has been internationally lauded and copied. It requires an animal owner to ensure animals’ “physical, health and behavioural needs” are met, and embodies “five freedoms”:

1. proper and sufficient food and water,

2. adequate shelter,

3. opportunity to display normal patterns of behaviour,

4. physical handling in a manner which minimises pain or distress

5. protection from and rapid diagnosis of significant injury or disease.

The Act provides for codes of welfare to be drafted and regularly reviewed, addressing minimum standards of care for individual groups of animals. It would seem logical to assume that the codes, whose authority stems from the Act, would meet the terms of the parent legislation. Problem is: the parent legislation has a foot in two camps.

Codes must try to give effect to the “five freedoms”, whilst also having regard to the feasibility and practicality of effecting a transition from old to new practices, the economic effects of any such transition, and the requirements of religious or cultural practices. In exceptional circumstances, minimum standards may be recommended in a code that do not fully meet the obligations of the Act.

For example, after a 2004 complaint by the Animal Rights Legal Advocacy Network (ARLAN) that the code relating to layer hens violated the birds’ behavioural needs, the government conceded that the behavioural needs of around 90 percent of New Zealand hens are not met, because battery cages do not permit innate behaviours of perching, nesting, wing stretching, and dust bathing; the cages are too small. It relied on the “exceptional circumstances” provision; in other words, economic interests were more important.

The Regulations Review Committee, however, upheld ARLAN’s complaint. It asked the government to revise the code and stipulate a transition date from non-complying cages to alternative systems, to bring the code into compliance with the Animal Welfare Act. The government declined.

The layer hen code will be reviewed again this year.

A similar tension is evident structurally, in relation to the Animal Welfare Group. The Group is a subsidiary of Biosecurity New Zealand, within MAF. It has its own Director, David Bayvell, but ultimately accountability rests with the Minister of Agriculture. MAF outcomes, set out on its website and in corporate documents, are focused on “the economy”, “people”, and “the environment”. Animal welfare is not mentioned. The Animal Welfare Group has almost no visible presence and, one assumes, equally low priority.

There is no need for another Act. Bu there are two systemic problems: animals’ voice and consumers’ expectations.

Some large assumptions underpin the present arrangements, whereby MAF speaks for both farmers and their animals. Happy animals, it’s said, are more productive. Happy animals also serve our export interests, because compassionate consumers are beginning to demand welfare compliance, and non-compliance can be used as an excuse for protectionism. In other words, farmers’ interests – economic interests – and animals’ coincide.

But happy animals are not always more productive. A hen allowed to live naturally will not produce eggs with quite the same mechanical frequency that a battery hen must, and the biological functions of unhappy animals – hens and cows and sows – do not stop.

The idea has been mooted of an independent voice for animals, analogous to the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. But he or she would inevitably struggle to gain traction, for exactly the same reasons that animal advocates currently struggle. If animal welfare advocates move too far ahead of public expectations, there is a real risk that demand at the bottom end of the market will remain, and be met by cheap imports from countries with even lower welfare standards.

We are all, collectively, the eponymous fox. Blaming the Act, or MAF, is a cop out. If you worry about animal welfare, the question becomes: what will you, personally, do about it? What choices and changes might you make to the quality and quantity of meat you eat? More about that next time.

I would like to acknowledge the contributions of Dr Peter Beatson. Peter has written three essays that anyone interested in animal welfare should read. They are available online here.