OPINION: Supermarkets' animal welfare moves in good taste

OPINION: On MAR 11, 2011 | The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect the views of Animals Australia.
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The grocery retail giant Coles has unjustly come under heavy fire recently from a group led by Ian Lean, adjunct professor of veterinary science at the University of Sydney and managing director of SBScibus formerly known as Strategic Bovine Services and Cattle Production Consultants.

Lean has claimed that Coles's policy to stock only hormone (HGP)-free beef, and to phase out pork sourced from pigs in gestation crates (small metal cages), is "bad for the environment" and "bad for animals".
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His views have now been echoed in a major advertising campaign mounted together with his colleagues, and bankrolled by the so called "Animal Health Alliance". This is a veterinary pharmaceutical lobby group whose members include major manufacturers of HGPs used in beef production.

Notably, HGPs are banned in Europe.

The ad campaign has denounced Coles' animal welfare policies as a "threat to the sustainable and ethical production of food". Move over George Orwell. To those of us without a vested interest in animal agribusiness, this "threat" is doublespeak for an encouraging movement in the right direction by Coles.

Take for example the view of Clive Phillips, Professor of Animal Welfare at the University of Queensland and Voiceless scientific councillor.

Phillips has said of HGPs, "These growth promoters are most effective in intensive feedlot systems for cattle, and with a rapidly expanding world population we should be moving to more sustainable systems that don't use large quantities of cereal grain in cattle feed. The risks to the environment, and to animal welfare, are not worth the small improvement in growth efficiency that HGPs provide."

On the animal welfare issue there is scientific evidence that HGPs dramatically reduce their resting time. HGPs make cattle more susceptible to climatic extremes, increasing the risk, for example, of heat stress. According to the RSPCA, in addition to the welfare risks that intensive feedlot systems already pose for cattle, the side effects of HGPs include infection at the site of the implant, aggressiveness, nervousness and rectal prolapse. A 2008 study cited by the RSPCA found evidence of "chronic stress conditions" in HGP implanted cattle.

But HGPs are just one technology used in intensive farming. Gestation crates are a case in point of the worst aspects of the industry. Extraordinarily, Lean and his colleagues claim in their advertising campaign that gestation crates "favour animal well-being".

Gestation crates, also known as sow stalls, are metal cages, often with concrete or slatted floors, in which female breeding pigs are individually confined for much of their adult life. These cages are only slightly larger than the pig's body, meaning this intelligent creature is unable to even turn around. Confined sows show repetitive bar-biting and head-waving, apathy and depression. They suffer from poor physical health including skin ulcerations, reduced muscle mass, bone strength and cardiovascular health, joint damage, urinary infections and gastrointestinal problems. They are unable to exercise any of their natural behaviours, which include ranging over many kilometres to build a nest for their young, separating their area for defecation, and rooting in natural materials with their snout. If you kept your dog like this you would potentially be subject to criminal prosecution.

The relevant science on both the welfare and reproductive performance of pigs does not support the continued use of individual sow stalls. The eminent members of the EU's Scientific Veterinary Committee concluded that, "since overall welfare appears to be better when sows are not confined throughout gestation, sows should preferably be kept in groups".

Internationally, there is a wave of change away from the intensive animal production systems, such as gestation crates, which cause the greatest suffering. Britain banned sow stalls in 1999. The EU has banned sow stalls (except for the first four weeks of pregnancy) from 2013 and in the US, sow stalls have been banned in a number of states including California, Michigan and Florida. Closer to home, New Zealand and Tasmania have also committed to banning sow stalls. Even our pork industry's peak body, Australian Pork Ltd, announced last year that it will phase out sow stalls by 2017. The Australian government is still the international laggard. Voiceless is now calling on the Commonwealth to follow industry's lead and revise the Model Code of Practice for Pigs to ban these unconscionable cages.

Lean and his colleagues deride the "emotion" that motivates those concerned with animals and their well-being, saying we must have recourse only to the "science". But as consumers increasingly make animal-friendly choices, they are showing that "emotion" in other words, compassion towards animals is not so easily disregarded. Compassion is central to community values, and a touchstone of our better human natures. And happily, emotion and science are entirely in agreement. As we know and feel instinctively, and as the scientific research shows, intensive farming is generally bad for animals.

The truth is that Coles, and other major retailers such as Woolworths, have seen the writing on the wall and are responding positively. They are making strategic decisions on supply chain that extend "ethical sourcing", which is an integral facet of corporate responsibility programs, to embrace both animal welfare and increasing consumer preference towards animal-friendly products.

Woolworths removed cage eggs from its in-house Select brand in 2009, has introduced several free-range deli lines (which have shown extraordinary sales growth), and is sourcing about 40 per cent of its pork from non-sow stall production systems.

We, as a community are starting to see the farm animal as a sentient being, with capacities like our own, including complex social and family behaviours, intelligence and a wide range of emotions. Basic human decency demands that we take seriously these animals' needs to be free of suffering, and to exercise their rich behavioral repertoires. Ian Lean and his colleagues in animal agribusiness would do well to reflect on this.

But don't take it from us. Take it from a scientist. As Einstein wrote, "our task must be to free ourselves from the prison house" of our personal desires by "widening the circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures".

Brian Sherman AM HonLittD is co-founder and MD of animal protection think tank Voiceless. Dr Annemarie Jonson is Voiceless's head of communications and a writer on ethics and technology.

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