Photo: Brendon O'Hagan/Bloomberg

NZ’s failing animal welfare system is letting responsible farmers down

From dairy cattle and pigs to layer hens, meat chickens and farmed fish, our animal welfare standards are falling short, a new report has found.

For the vast majority of us, our interaction with farmed animals is seldom direct. The origins of the eggs, milk or bacon that go into oh-so-many an Instagrammable brunch seem abstract and diffuse. Beyond, perhaps, asking for free-range eggs, we give little thought to how exactly those animal products come from the farm to the plate. At the same time, though, the vast majority of us hold the very reasonable expectation that those animal products were created in a humane, ethical manner. There’s an element of national pride here: the factory farming horror shows of North America aren’t the New Zealand way. So while the vast majority of us might not know exactly how animal welfare is upheld in New Zealand, we still assume that there are standards, that they are better than other countries’ standards, and, most importantly, that farms are meeting them.

For perhaps the first time, those assumptions have been rigorously put to the test. Alongside leading United Kingdom animal welfare scientist Andrew Knight, and funded by the New Zealand Law Foundation, we have prepared a report for the New Zealand Animal Law Association (one of the organisations involved in these important legal proceedings last year), into farmed animal welfare. In our report, we undertook an evidenced-based analysis of the standards that apply to the farming of dairy cattle, pigs, layer hens and meat chickens, as well as analysing the lack of (and need for) standards for farmed fish. We concluded that there is a substantial gap between the animal welfare requirements set out in legislation – the Animal Welfare Act 1999 – and what is provided for in the various codes of welfare and regulations that sit below that legislation. In particular, the Animal Welfare Act requires owners and persons in charge of animals to meet their “physical, health and behavioural needs”. Unfortunately, the regulations and codes of welfare do not always meet this standard. 

This disparity matters. We are not just a team of five million: every year, New Zealand farms more than 600,000 pigs, 3.94 million layer hens, six million dairy cattle, and 125 million meat chickens. Although the Animal Welfare Act sets out the overarching welfare protections that must be met, it is the standards in codes of welfare that determine how these animals live – and how they die.

Unfortunately, these inconsistencies were identified with respect to all species we considered. For example, we found that 16 standards for dairy cattle simply did not meet the requirements of the act, including inadequate provisions for stocking density, access to shelter and preventing lameness. The same occurred with meat chickens and layer hens, with the relevant codes containing numerous problematic standards including the ongoing use of cages for layer hens and the live maceration of male chicks, and the use of fast-growing breeds for meat chickens. We found 11 different standards in the pigs code fell short; indicating that the High Court’s determination last year that mating stalls and farrowing crates do not comply with the act was simply the tip of the iceberg. In fact, certain standards in the layer hen and meat chicken codes were not only found to be inconsistent with the act, but to permit practices so harmful that they have been disavowed by many global fast food outlets. And let’s be honest: when Colonel Sanders outdoes your country’s animal welfare standards, you know something has gone seriously wrong. 

Perhaps most worryingly, we found a lack of specific standards when it came to farmed fish. This is no minor omission: the country produces more than 15,000 tonnes of salmon every year. As Nemo and Dory would no doubt affirm, fish are sentient – they can and do experience both negative and positive emotional experiences. That fact is recognised by the Animal Welfare Act, which affirms that animals – including fish – are sentient. More troubling still, the report highlights a lack of any legal requirement that fish be rendered insensible before being killed – ie that they be slaughtered humanely. Just pause on that. It’s hard to fathom a more basic legal right: a promise to be free from pain and suffering when killed for our tacos.

Ultimately, we lay the blame not at the feet of any one farmer or industry, but instead at a failing animal welfare system, which is letting those responsible farmers – and the country – down. We found the body responsible for recommending those standards, the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, or NAWAC, is grossly under-resourced, lacking a single full-time staff member. Consistently, it has failed to review the latest scientific literature, and troublingly, sometimes appeared to rubber-stamp existing industry practices. Commercial efficacy often seemed to trump the most appropriate and scientifically based animal welfare standards – contrary to the plain requirements of the law. We found very real transparency concerns, too: it is not always clear exactly how NAWAC reviews the latest scientific literature or comes to the conclusions it reaches. 

So, what next? Given the deficiencies we have identified in this report, we have recommended an urgent and comprehensive review of the codes of welfare to ensure they reflect current scientific understanding, and the central requirements of the Animal Welfare Act. We also recommend some changes to the way NAWAC operates. This includes better resourcing and collaboration and consultation with the public and academics. Most importantly, however, we hope that this  report begins a conversation on what we as a nation expect animal welfare to look like. Change is necessary to ensure New Zealand’s animal welfare standards continue to improve, and that they honour what is enshrined in the Animal Welfare Act. 

We might not know exactly where our scrambled eggs came from. But it is reasonable to expect that animals that created those products were treated ethically and according to the best animal welfare science available. Indeed, our country prides itself on its reputation for its empathy, and its trust in science. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that’s happening with respect to animal welfare at the moment, and that’s not good enough. Immediate action is needed if our animal welfare system is to produce food that is not only Instagrammable, but made humanely in accordance with the law.

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