Auditing animal welfare

Demand for animal welfare standards

Some poultry companies include animal welfare in their Quality Assurance (QA) programs in response to consumer and market demands that animal welfare is a quality issue. A recent survey in Australia has shown that this demand is real with more than 30% of consumers engaging in some form of animal welfare-related activity such as donating to an animal welfare group or talking about the topic with friends, family or colleagues. Thus, there is an increasing need for suppliers to provide information on animal welfare and management practices at all stages of production, transport and processing.

Codes of practice for animal welfare

Animal welfare in Australia is a State issue and while there are Codes of Practice for the Welfare of Animals, including one for Domestic Poultry in all States and Territories, these are modified by some States and they tend to be fairly general with no provisions for industry/companies to demonstrate compliance.

Welfare standards in the chicken meat and egg industries

The chicken meat industry provides a good example of what has been happening in the area of animal welfare standards. A comprehensive animal welfare audit document titled “A Welfare Audit for the Chicken Meat Industry” has been developed to cover all aspects of management that impact on animal welfare from birth to slaughter. The intention at the outset was for the documentation to provide national standards so that all companies in Australia would have the same animal welfare standard for any issue.

Documentation has been developed on animal welfare for companies to incorporate into existing QA programs that predominantly focus on food safety and biosecurity, albeit with some elements of welfare such as mortality and morbidity. The documentation was developed by a management group that comprised of representatives from commercial companies, farmer groups, animal welfare groups, and teaching and research organisations.

Documentation has been prepared for the hatchery, growing, rearing and breeding sectors as well as the transport and processing sectors. The booklet for each industry sector contains audit questions, targets and background information on the purpose of the questions and how the questions/practices relate to welfare in addition to sample recording sheets for staff to complete to help demonstrate compliance with the audit process. The audit questions include both critical questions, which are defined as those where “if something goes wrong the welfare of the birds is irrevocably damaged” and good practice questions which reflect the current state of knowledge and its practical implementation in the industry. Some sample audit questions and targets from the booklet for broiler rearers are presented below.

Similarly, the egg industry has released its National Egg Quality Assurance Program, “Egg Corp Assured”. This program focuses on the on-farm components for egg production, although it includes off-farm transport of eggs and birds. In line with modern QA programs, food safety, animal health and animal welfare are all included.

The audit documentation for both industries fulfils several aims. Most importantly, that of demonstrating high standards of animal welfare by providing documented evidence of high quality animal care and by identifying and monitoring equipment, animal problems and human resource issues associated with quality animal care. There are also a number of subsidiary aims, including increased awareness by industry personnel of the interactions between production and welfare and a recognition that welfare must be continually improved.

Implementation of welfare audits

Industry implementation of welfare into company QA programs in the chicken meat industry is reasonable with over half the birds in Australian flocks currently under QA programs incorporating 2005/06 Version 2 the “Welfare Audit for the Chicken Meat Industry”. A recent industry survey indicated that there was good support for implementation although there were issues of timing and priorities. To simplify implementation, industry has been provided with a “how to” guide to assist companies in identifying the most relevant welfare aspects and practices for their company that could be incorporated into their existing QA program.

Implementation in the egg industry is well underway and involves third-party audits. Current challenges for the poultry industries are to both increase the uptake of welfare QA and to rapidly adopt new research and development that demonstrates improvements in animal welfare.

Below are some audit questions and targets  for routine husbandry procedures from the broiler audit.

1. Audit questions

 indicates question referred to in the Code of Practice.* indicates there is a target (at the bottom of the page) for the question.

1. Were birds checked at least 4 times daily?

– Was water pressure gauge/height checked daily?
– Was the availability of water to all drinkers checked daily?
– Was feed delivery (at the feeders) monitored daily?

2. Did bird behaviour appear normal and did the birds look healthy in the first week?

–  In the first few days did chicks huddle indicating they were cold?
–  Did chicks appear slow and listless in first few days indicating they were hot?

3. Was the company technical adviser called to advise on health problems?

4. Was any advice that was given followed?

5. Was a flock health monitoring program in place?

6. Were unthrifty birds culled?

7. Were dead birds removed daily?

8. Were birds euthanised by cervical dislocation (breaking the bird’s neck)?

9. Were dead birds disposed of according to company recommendations?*

10. Were mortalities within targets?*

11. If mortalities were greater than target specifications were reasons determined?

12. Were shed temperatures maintained within the specified limits in week 1?*

2. Targets for routine husbandry procedures


A) Variable disposal of dead birds

Code recommendations– to be removed promptly and hygienically.

Targets- To be removed from the shed daily. Methods of disposal are freeze and take off-farm, compost or bury in covered sites.


B) Mortalities

Code recommendations– None.

Targets- At week 1 = 1-2 % (this includes all birds sent from the hatchery).


C) Whole shed temperatures (°C)

Code recommendations– Shed temperatures to be between 19 and 33 °C at all times.

Targets- Day 0 – 1 = 32 °C; day 2 = 31 °C; day 7 = 29 °C (all ± 1 °C).


Original article written by Dr John Barnett