What is scientific assessment of welfare?

There has been a dramatic increase in society’s interest in the welfare of farm animals (Fraser, 2001; Levy, 2004; Coleman, 2008) and consequently there has been increased scrutiny of the use of farm animals. While consumer and public attitudes to animal welfare are likely to be influential in determining society’s use of farm animals, science has a critical role in underpinning governments’ decisions, on behalf of the community, on farm animal use, and the attendant conditions and compromises.

Many people are unaware of the factual information regarding the conditions under which farm animals live, how they are treated and their species-specific requirements. Furthermore, failure to assure consumers, the general public, governments, special interest groups and retailers that the welfare standards for farm animals are underpinned by sound science may risk the adoption of new technology in the animal industries that could affect the profitability and viability of these industries by affecting specific animal uses (Hemsworth et al., 2007). Thus, scientific information on how animals adapt or respond to farming practices needs to be disseminated to the general public. The exclusion of science from the welfare discussion will result in emotive arguments from sectional interests dominating community discussion. This is not to say that people’s emotional responses are not relevant to the discussion. Indeed, such responses partly reflect current community values, however, they should contribute to, not preempt, the discussion. Alternatively, when research demonstrates that welfare is at risk, the livestock industries need to proactively respond by making the necessary changes in much the same way as they would adopt new technologies to improve health, nutrition and productivity (Hemsworth et al., 2007).

While science and community values underpin the establishment, amendment or validation of industry welfare standards and practices, an understanding by industry of the basis of these standards and practices, particularly their scientific basis, is important for industry personnel to appreciate the need for improvements in animal welfare standards and practice and to achieve these improvements. Furthermore, as mentioned above, improved welfare in many cases may lead to improved individual animal productivity (Hemsworth and Coleman, 1998) since an important focus in improving animal welfare is reducing housing, husbandry and handling stress.


Background – The Problem

A current weakness in studying animal welfare is that there are differing definitions of animal welfare (Fraser, 2003; Sandoe et al., 2004). This unease with the definition exists both within science and more broadly when decisions on acceptable welfare standards are being made by individuals or the community. There are three prominent concepts of animal welfare in the literature leading to the welfare of animals being judged on the basis of: 1. how well the animal is performing from a biological functioning perspective; 2. affective states, such as suffering, pain and other feelings or emotions; and 3. the expression of normal or ‘natural’ behaviours. The so-called ‘five freedoms’, that is freedom from hunger and thirst, from discomfort, from pain, injury and disease, to express normal behaviour, and from fear and distress (FAWC, 1993) include aspects of all of the above three concepts of animal welfare. While most would accept that these freedoms are necessary to avoid a lack of suffering, in terms of a consensus on animal welfare assessment there has been little attempt to define the levels of freedom that are desirable together with the adverse consequences of not providing such freedoms (Barnett and Hemsworth, 2009).

The first concept, which is often called the ‘biological functioning’ concept, equates poor welfare to biological dysfunction (Broom and Johnson, 1993; Hemsworth and Coleman, 1998), and thus a broad examination of the behavioural, physiological, health and fitness responses of animals are measured to judge animal welfare. The second concept, often called the ‘affective state’ or ‘feelings-based’ concept, defines animal welfare in terms of emotions and emphasises reductions in negative emotions, such as pain and fear and frustration, and increases in positive emotions such as comfort and pleasure (Fraser, 2003). This affective state concept has been promoted on the basis that animal welfare ultimately concerns animal feelings or emotions (Duncan, 2004). Measuring preferences of animals, using for example preference tests, has been used by scientists to assess animal welfare predominantly on the view that these preferences may be influenced by the animal’s emotions. While not well enunciated, the third concept promotes the principle that animals should be allowed to express their normal behaviour (Barnett and Hemsworth, 2009). This ‘normal behaviour’ concept probably has the least credibility in science. For example, there is broad agreement within science that it is often difficult to attribute actual suffering when the expression of certain behaviours is prevented or is absent when it would be expected to be present (Dawkins, 2003). Furthermore, as discussed by a number of authors, ‘wild’ behaviour may represent an animal’s efforts to survive in a life and death struggle or contest and therefore some ‘natural’ responses are adaptations to cope with extreme adverse situations.


What’s new – How to get to the solution

This uncertainty surrounding the concept of animal welfare and how animal welfare should be assessed does not necessarily diminish the robustness of the research utilising methodologies or measurements arising from these views or concepts of animal welfare.

As reviewed by Barnett and Hemsworth (2009), there are several commonalities in the rationale for these approaches. For example, it is considered that animals will be motivated to choose those resources or behaviours that maintain homoeostasis or biological functioning to optimise their fitness; that is, optimise their growth, reproduction, injury status, health, and survival. Furthermore, feelings or subjective affective states have evolved to motivate behaviour to meet needs that have to be satisfied in order for the organism to survive, grow, and reproduce. This conceptual convergence suggests an opportunity to develop a broader consensus on the study of animal welfare by reducing both conceptual differences and consequently methodological differences in animal welfare science.

The validity of the welfare criteria can be tested in two predominant ways (Barnett and Hemsworth, 2009). Research has found that there are correlations between independent measures of different concepts of animal welfare, and it has also been shown that an intuitively aversive condition reduces animal welfare on the basis of the measures of different concepts of animal welfare. Therefore, research examining the validity of these concepts and methodologies is necessary to understand the relationships between the different animal welfare concepts, which will ultimately minimise the actual conceptual and methodological differences as discussed above.



Science has a clear contribution to make in forging better agreement on animal welfare assessment and in developing practical animal-based measures of animal welfare. Good scientific research provides a means of assessing the actual impact of housing, husbandry and handling threats to the welfare of poultry, however, this research is far from complete, and the conclusions drawn on the welfare of animals are presently reliant on the approach that the researcher uses to assess welfare. What is lacking is a good understanding of how these different approaches to welfare assessment relate to one another.

The development of a broader scientific consensus on welfare measures arising from this research should lead to the development of credible measures that can be incorporated into welfare assessment and screening tools in the field.


Barnett, J.L. and Hemsworth, P.H. (2009). Welfare monitoring schemes: using research to safeguard welfare of animals on the farm. Journal of Animal Welfare Science 12, 1–17.

Broom, D. M., and Johnson, K. G. (1993). Stress and Animal Welfare. 1st Edition. Chapman and Hall, London, UK.

Coleman, G. (2008). Public perceptions of animal pain and animal welfare. OIE Technical Series 10, 26-37.

Dawkins, M. S. (2003). Behaviour as a tool in the assessment of animal welfare. Zoology 106, 383-387.

Duncan, I. J. H. (2004). A concept of welfare based on feelings. In The Well-being of Farm Animals: Challenges and Solutions, editors G. J. Benson, and Rollin, B. E. Blackwell Publishing, Iowa, USA, pp 95-101.

FAWC (Farm Animal Welfare Council). 2003. Second Report on Priorities for Research and Development in Farm Animal Welfare.

Fraser D 2001 Farm animal production: changing agriculture in a changing culture. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare 4, 175-190

Fraser, D. 2003. Assessing animal welfare at the farm and group level: the interplay of science and values. Animal Welfare 12, 433-443.

Hemsworth, P.H. and Coleman, G.J. (1998) Human-Livestock Interactions: The Stockperson and the Productivity and Welfare of Intensively-farmed Animals. CAB International, Oxon UK.

Hemsworth, P.H. Barnett, J.L., Rickard, M and Coleman, G.J. (2007). Australia’s research and development capacity in animal welfare. Farm Policy Journal 4 (4, November Quarter 2007), 23-31.

Levy, N. (2004). What Makes Us Moral? Crossing the Boundaries of Biology. Oneworld, Oxford, UK.

Sandøe, P., Forkman, F. and Christiansen, S. B. (2004). Scientific uncertainty – how should it be handled in relation to scientific advice regarding animal welfare issues? Animal Welfare 13, 121-126.

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

Sign up to the Echook Newsletter
for the latest from PoultryHub