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News Article

System developed for measurement of pig welfare

Allows reliable comparisons across different farming systems

Researchers at Cambridge University have developed a system of measuring animal welfare which allows reliable comparisons to be made across different types of pig farming systems.

Animal welfare can, for the first time, be properly considered alongside other impacts of farming to help identify which farming systems are best. This is vital for improving animal welfare in livestock production in view of increasing concerns about the welfare of intensive and indoor systems. Such welfare assessments could also better inform consumers when choosing what to eat.

Various labelling schemes exist for meat products in Britain to assure consumers that certain standards have been met. ‘Woodland’ labelled pork is from farms that provide at least partial tree cover for the pigs, and ‘organic’ provides outdoor access for them. The ‘RSPCA assured’ label is welfare focused, while ‘free range’ is not a formal assurance, but typically refers to fully outdoor farming systems. Most UK pig farms produce ‘Red Tractor’ labelled pork, with lower production costs, translating to a lower price for consumers.

The Cambridge team used their new system to test how the different labels compare in terms of animal welfare.

Farms producing ‘woodland’ labelled pork products scored best for pig welfare, followed by ‘organic’, then free-range, RSPCA assured, Red Tractor, and finally those with no certification.

Lead author of the study, Harriet Bartlett said that the study has shown that not only is it possible to reliably assess animal welfare on farms, but that decisions about the types of farm better or worse for animal welfare can now be based on proper calculations, rather than assumptions – as is currently the case. Bartlett who conducted the study while a researcher at the university’s Department of Veterinary Medicine, is now a research associate in sustainable food solutions at the University of Oxford.

Bartlett explained that “animal welfare can now be included in overall assessments of farm sustainability alongside other measures like carbon emissions and biodiversity impacts, which will allow us to to make better informed decisions about how we choose to farm and what we choose to eat.”

The new system assesses the quality of an animal’s life through a set of welfare measurements, reflecting a range of concerns about welfare. The results can be integrated into a single score to enable comparison across farms. This will enable exploration of trade-offs between animal welfare and other issues of concern to consumers, such as the impact of farming on the environment.

Assessment of the pigs looked at everything from health problems like coughing, sneezing, and lameness, to the way they interacted, such as biting each other’s ears or tails, or engaging with their environment.

Various scoring methods were tested - giving more or less weight to the different aspects of animal welfare - on 74 pig farming systems in the UK. Each method gave broadly the same overall result in terms of which farms, and types of farms, performed best and worst.

According to co-author Andrew Balmford, professor at the university's Department of Zoology, they have been able to identify the types of farms they might want to encourage and which shouldn’t with reasonable consistency.

The new welfare measurements combine quality of life with length of life, and scores can be produced ‘per unit’ of production. The welfare scores can also allow several farms to be grouped together, for example when animals are kept on different farms at different growth stages.

Co-author James Wood, professor at the Department of Veterinary Medicine, said that the work opens up possibilities for greater rolling out of welfare assessment scores in food labelling, including in other species.

‘Life cycle assessment’ (LCA) is an analysis technique widely used to quantify environmental impacts, such as greenhouse gas emissions and land use, across all stages of farm animal production. To date there has not been a means of measuring animal welfare that allows valid comparisons across different farming systems, so LCAs do not include it and as a result, welfare concerns have sometimes been overlooked.

This research was funded by the BBSRC, the Royal Society, MRC and the Alborada Trust and the findings have been published in an open access paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B:Biological Sciences.

Bartlett, H; Balmford, A; Holmes, MA; Wood, JLN. 2023. Advancing the quantitative characterization of farm animal welfare. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 290:20230120;

Article details

  • Date
  • 31 March 2023
  • Source
  • University of Cambridge
  • Subject(s)
  • Veterinary medicine