“Animal welfare can improve food safety”

07 February 20228 min reading

“At EFSA, animal welfare becomes an increasingly important part of our work. The authority’s scientific assessments help risk managers identify methods to reduce unnecessary pain, distress and suffering for animals and to improve welfare wherever possible.”

Yves van der Stede
Animal Welfare

Interview: Cemalettin Kanaş

Animal welfare is a relatively new concept and different from animal health. It is a broad concept that goes beyond a biological perspective and encompasses everything that affects the quality of animal life. We discussed this concept with Mr. Yves van der Stede, team leader of Animal Welfare at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Van der Stede defines animal welfare, the cover story of our February issue, with a focus on poultry, as “meeting the needs of the birds considering nutrition; environment; health; behavior and mental state”. Noting that animal health and welfare are closely linked, the EFSA official emphasizes that an improvement of animal welfare can improve productivity and food safety. Pointing out that the increase in consumer awareness directly reflects on animal welfare, the European manager notes that the concept of animal welfare becomes an increasingly important part of its work. Talking about EFSA's recent work, van der Stede put a special emphasis on the Farm to Fork Strategy (F2F), which aims to make agricultural practices in Europe more sustainable, and the End the Cage Age initiative, signed by more than 1.5 million European citizens and supported by around 170 organizations. 

Below are the answers of Yves van der Stede, Team leader of Animal Welfare at EFSA, to Feed Planet's questions:

Animal welfare is a relatively new concept for the world. What should we understand from animal welfare? Could you explain it with a focus on poultry? How is animal welfare different from animal health?

Animal welfare refers to the quality of life experienced by an animal and encompasses how well the animal is coping with its current situation and surroundings.  Animal welfare is affected by the relationships human beings have with animals and it is our duty to ensure all animals are treated humanely, responsibly, and with respect. From, poultry perspective it means that the needs of the birds are being met, considering nutrition; environment; health; behaviour and mental state.

According to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) animal welfare should be science-based. There is increasing evidence indicating that better welfare is often linked to better health, and that is possible to have higher welfare without compromising production rates. On the contrary: improvement of animal welfare on farm can often improve productivity and food safety.

It’s important to note that the European Union has a long history of regulating the welfare of farmed animals as well as the transport of animals. 

Animal (poultry) welfare can be related with many things such as equipment, litter conditions, water quality, feed quality, and etc. In this context, what are the main points to be taken into consideration from poultry factories side? Does welfare concept burden extra costs to them? What are the main problems?

When the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) carries out an assessment of welfare, it looks at a wide range of factors related with housing, husbandry and overall management of poultry production. This allows an overview of how the environment in which the animal is raised may impact its welfare. Research has identified indicators of negative and positive welfare, and EFSA carries out a comprehensive evaluation of the scientific studies looking at the relationship of these indicators with rearing practices and the physical environment where birds are placed.  These indicators could be considered to monitor and improve the animal welfare on farm with benefits for all the whole production chain.

With regards to intensive farming in poultry, certain welfare concerns can be listed, including growth potential (fast growing), feed or water restriction, housing and behavioural needs (lack of foraging, searching, pecking, preening, stretching, running, nesting space, perching and ranging), among others.

EFSA does not have the task to assess the extra costs but only to carry out an assessment of welfare. Animal welfare is of increasing concern to society, and many people with farm animals under their care along the food chain are striving to improve the welfare of those animals.


How does poultry welfare benefit the birds and the consumers?

Consumers seem to be increasingly more interested in purchasing products from animals that were treated humanely. Animal welfare is now considered by them as part of the overall quality of animal-derived products. EFSA's role is to identify which are the major problems in each production system, and to give advice on what to change to reduce the severity of certain welfare problems, based on scientific evidence. Health and welfare are closely linked, and both are taken into account in EFSA's assessments.

What are the legislative requirements about the animal (poultry) welfare concept? How is the situation in EU countries? Many developments in EU about health issues may result in positive repercussions in other regions. Is this also the case for welfare concept?

The EU legislation on the welfare of farmed animals consists of a Directive concerning the protection of animals kept for farming purposes and four Directives laying down minimum standards for the protection of laying hens, broilers, pigs and calves; one Regulation on animal transport and one Regulation on the protection of animals at the time of killing. In other words, it regulates animal welfare at farm level, during transport and at slaughter.

Originally, the objectives of the EU legislation on animal welfare are to ensure by uniform application and enforcement the welfare of farmed animals, while at the same time allowing rational production and fair competition for EU business operators. Under the Farm to Fork Strategy (F2F), the European Commission committed to revise this legislation and consider options for animal welfare labelling. EFSA is working to provide independent scientific advice to the policy makers, considering newly available science and technologies, and to provide possible approaches to be developed to design policy options.

The situation in EU countries and the compliance check of these rules are not verified by EFSA, but by audits undertaken by the European Commission, and their reports are publicly available. EFSA's does not have a direct role on development of policy, risk management nor compliance check, so as to maintain its independency as a risk assessment body.


What would you say about Europe’s prohibition of antibiotic growth promoters in poultry? How did the consumers benefit from it? What changes did this restriction bring?

The ban on antimicrobials as growth promoters precedes any EFSA risk assessments. In any case, that decision has always been considered a success of the EU actions to combat antimicrobial resistance. Antimicrobials should be used for treatments and not for prevention or growth promotion aims. I do not see any political will or societal demand to change the ban in place.


”Insects as feed” is a popular agenda for some start-ups, conglomerates and associations. We know that worms and some insects are a natural food for poultry. How would you comment on the industrial and mass use of insects as poultry feed? Is it something government authorities give in to the pressures of the industry or rather a new concept that will benefit all?

“Insects as food and animal feed” is indeed a growing interest. From an EFSA perspective, let me underline how essential it is to understand what the risks from production could be, processing and consumption of this alternative source of protein. EFSA has addressed this question with a risk profile that identifies the potential biological and chemical hazards as well as allergenicity and environmental hazards associated with the use of farmed insects as food and feed. The Scientific Opinion also compares these potential hazards with those associated with mainstream sources of animal protein.

The possible presence of biological and chemical hazards in food and feed products derived from insects would depend on the production methods, what the insects are fed on (substrate), the lifecycle stage at which the insects are harvested, the insect species, as well as the methods used for further processing.


Is there anything you want to add that we didn’t cover?

At EFSA, animal welfare becomes an increasingly important part of our work. The authority’s scientific assessments help risk managers identify methods to reduce unnecessary pain, distress and suffering for animals and to improve welfare wherever possible.