Animal welfare in practice – Scientific approach instead of romantic notions

Since my parents were Alpine shepherds and cattle farmers, animals have been close to me since I was a little child. I’ve been living in Hungary for 28 years now, running a meat company, keeping pigs and working with them is my life. For me, animal protection and animal welfare are concepts with real meaning, part of my everyday life.

I know what it means to respect an animal beyond its basic needs of hunger, thirst, pain, disease, unnecessary discomfort, and to live without fear. To have enough living space, to be neither too hot nor too cold, to have as little stress as possible, even during transport. That if it is sick, it should be treated, so that it does not infect its companions and die. I keep a constant eye on international scientific studies, all of which are aimed at keeping our animals in better welfare conditions.

Unfortunately, however, I have noticed that although most people are aware of the basic concepts of animal welfare, they have misguided, romantic ideas about the feelings of animals, whether pets or farm animals, and few people know what animal welfare consists of.

At KOMETA, we conducted a survey this spring; we asked our Facebook followers about this topic and got some very interesting results. There is no doubt that we love animals. Not only do we love them, but we also respect them, in fact, most people think they are sentient beings just like humans. I agree that we should respect animals, but we also must see that the feelings we associate with them are not necessarily correct. To understand them, science must be called upon, because it is scientific studies that can track the real reactions of animals to a situation and thus show the way for animal keepers.

Meat the facts II, a handbook produced by the NAK (National Chamber of Agriculture), deals with animal welfare. This publication provides a clear overview of animal welfare for professionals and lay readers alike and presents a number of important scientific studies and results, including sources. For those who would like to delve deeper into the subject, I warmly recommend the NAK publication, and I will cover the basic concepts below.

Animal health and welfare

To introduce the basic concepts of animal welfare, I will return to our research mentioned above. Almost all respondents recited the World Organisation for Animal Health definition, i.e., they passed the test. So, almost all respondents agreed that animal welfare means that the animal is healthy, well fed, and not in pain, fear, or distress. Almost everyone also agreed that part of animal welfare is preventing disease and providing veterinary care. However, this is contradicted by the fact that 84% think that it is animal welfare if animals are not given antibiotics. It begs the question: would most people leave a sick animal to suffer rather than cure it with antibiotics if necessary?

Fortunately, most farmers are aware that it is better to prevent disease, but that disease should be treated as soon as possible. We also know that an animal that is unwell or stressed can become ill or even behave aggressively. Minimising stress is very important on a farm, because the animals that are not stressed will have the best meat, and ultimately these animals are kept so that we humans can have the best quality food. The behaviour of the animals must therefore be constantly monitored by their caretakers, precisely so that they do not feel unwell or become ill.

Free range good, battery farming bad?

Returning to the survey, nearly three quarters of respondents said that animal welfare can only be maintained in free-range systems, and more than 9 in 10 think that animal welfare is achieved by not confining animals in pens or cages. This is also a rather romantic idea, and in this case too we must call on science.

I ask the question: are those who advocate free-range housing aware that such housing increases the risk of disease, which can lead to higher mortality and sometimes negative emotional states?

I am not saying that free-range farming cannot be good, in fact it can be a model that works well for small farms and family businesses, but it is not a model that can supply the entire food market. Battery farming is regulated by EU legislation. Both types of farming can work badly, but of course they can also work well if animal welfare standards are considered.

Less meat, better quality

Animal rights activists and environmentalists often argue loudly for not eating meat. I, of course, feel that this is exaggerated, but I agree that people should eat less meat, but that a more moderate amount should be of better quality.

In other words, when we buy meat, let us choose a quality product, let us look at where it comes from and let us ask ourselves how, under what conditions, was the animal kept before slaughter?

I was delighted to read that a significant proportion of our survey respondents would find it useful to have a label on the packaging of products that states that they have been produced to high animal welfare standards, and that the majority would be so keen to buy from a manufacturer who places a high priority on animal welfare and protection.

We therefore urge the industry to take a united stand and to initiate this type of transparency and consumer education. This is also part of the HonestFood concept that we at KOMETA represent.

Education

I am proud that we were the first meat company to join the Animal Welfare Code launched by the University of Veterinary Medicine in March 2022. This commitment does not impose any extra burden on us, as we operate by the code ourselves.

We follow the latest research on animal welfare, animal protection, animal pain perception and animal behaviour, and look for ways to deviate in a positive direction from the minimum requirements of animal welfare legislation.

By signing the Code, we also pledged to play a role in education, i.e., to make people aware of the abstract concepts of animal welfare and to give them substance.

That is why, for example, the much-quoted research was carried out, to see what our consumers know and think about animal welfare in this case, to see where their knowledge might be lacking. And of course, that’s partly why this blog is being written, because a more informed consumer makes better informed choices when they make a purchase, and in the long run those choices can have a positive impact on their own health and help protect the environment. We need to work with our consumers on this journey. We, as a company, by being transparent, by constantly asking ourselves questions, by product and manufacturing innovations that take the environment and human health into account; and consumers by not falling for promotions and looking at the labels on products to check, for example, the meat content of a product, and by thinking about where it comes from, where it was made, and finally putting it in their shopping basket, i.e. by making an informed purchase.