A Shift of Responsibility

Agricultural modernization arguably took the issue of animal welfare out of the traditional moral realm of stewardship and into the domain of science. Empiricism and the scientific method, under the paradigm of agricultural progress, furnished animal science with a refuge from overt and explicit ethical engagement. Although the contested anthropocentrism of Enlightenment thinking contested the moral acceptability of the cruel treatment of animals, largely as a means of containing socialized violence, and led ultimately to the foundation of bodies such as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824, growing awareness of the potential for animal suffering was, in practice, soon superseded by a technological mastery over animal lives and an economic rationalization of animal bodies in which animal science was entirely complicit and society, largely unquestioning. With the growth of farm animal welfare concerns, beginning in the latter decades of the last century, three things have happened to alter the prevailing balance of responsibility.

First, there has been mounting contestation of the natural sciences' long standing claims of ethical neutrality in matters of animal welfare definition and assessment. This is partly evident in the growing number of committed farm animal scientists that have become actively engaged in promoting greater welfare for farm animals. With the gradual acceptance by animal scientists of animal sentience as a critical element in the under standing of welfare, this contestation has extended to the natural sciences' quasi exclusive claim to 'speak' for nonhuman animals. Ethologists and philosophers engaged in the welfare issue, such as Tannenbaum, Sandoe, and Rollin, have all called for greater dialog between social and natural sciences, arguing, first, that the normative determination of levels of animal welfare implicitly requires value judgments and, second, that attempts to identify and act upon the subjective experiences of animals necessitates an interpretive approach that extends beyond the empirical realm. More recently, researchers drawing on science and technology studies have begun to expand the repertoire of social and natural science dialog in the field of animal welfare by bringing animal bodies, scientists, instruments, farmers, and other material and semiotic elements together in actor-networks, arguing that farm animal welfare is, above all, simultaneously socially and materially constructed, while the multiple ontologies surrounding welfare itself are inherently political.

Second, there has been a significant growth in popular awareness of, and concern for, the welfare of farm animals in many countries. There are now a large number of animal welfare organizations operating all over the world, for example, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in the UK; the international body, Compassion in World Farming, the Humane Society, and the Humane Farming Association in the US. Certain husbandry practices have led to militant action and sustained popular protest, for example, the transport of veal calves in Great Britain and, more generally, the use of veal crates across the European Union. Others have been the subject of mounting popular objection (such as the fabrication of foie gras). Increasingly, polls and public surveys, like those undertaken by Eurobarometer, are revealing widespread public engagement with the issue of farm animal welfare. This growing popular concern raises two important issues. First, it discloses what are, in places, significant discrepancies between, on the one hand, scientific approaches to the definition and assessment of farm animal welfare and, on the other hand, popular conceptions of what is good and what is bad for farm animals. Here, anthropomorphic and naturalist notions are often prevalent with welfare being clearly associated with such elements as outdoor and barn rearing (over battery rearing), straw bedding, communal housing, and grass feed. The science, on the other hand, is often far more equivocal on these issues pointing to higher mortality rates, aggressive behavior, greater exposure to variable environmental conditions, and so on. Second, the growth of popular awareness of farm animal welfare nonetheless exposes the considerable distance that persists, for a variety of reasons, between expressed concern, on the one side, and individual or collective action on the other. While surveys show that many people disapprove of certain contemporary husbandry practices, research systematically reveals that relatively few act upon these concerns when acquiring food. In part, this is because farm animal welfare has to take its place in the increasingly pluralist ethical habitus of today's consumers. In part too, however, farm animal welfare, and its ultimate association with animal death, is something that the majority of people do not wish to actively think about when buying animal products, preferring to pass the ethical buck to legislators and food chain actors to act ethically on their behalf. This has major implications for the way in which farm animal welfare is regulated.

The third change in the shifting balance of responsibility for farm animal welfare is therefore its growing commodification. For alongside the expanding legislative regulation of farm animal welfare at the national and international scale, food chain actors, from producers and manufacturers to retailers, are increasingly using animal welfare criteria as an element of market segmentation and added product value. In a retail food sector dominated by competition over price, segmentation by quality is opening up a far more differentiated market and is responding to more diversified consumer demands. The use of animal welfare criteria in such segmentation strategies is exemplified by egg categorization and the enormous growth in sales of free range eggs. Retailers, manufacturers, and producers are also employing welfare criteria over and above the minimum legislative requirements, such as outdoor rearing, longer life, absence of hormones, and so on, to a widening range of other foodstuffs and are distinguishing these products on supermarket shelves through labeling information. Although, with the noted exception of free range eggs, segmentation and labeling on the sole basis of animal welfare is relatively rare (the principal exception being the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' Freedom Foods label), an expanding number of food quality assurance and certification schemes, operated largely by retailers in some countries, and also by manufacturers and producers in others, include animal welfare requirements either as an entry point to retailer shelves (in which case they are not necessarily labeled as such but form part of the corporate responsibility of the food actor) or as a component in a broader classification (such as organic or 'quality' labeled products). The market, therefore, is currently demonstrating its potential for playing a significant role in raising welfare standards, often over and above regulatory minima. In recognition of this, there are currently moves within the European Union to develop an animal welfare label for products derived from higher welfare production systems, similar in its objectives to the existing organic labeling scheme.

For many observers, the growth in consumer awareness of animal welfare issues, and the market response to that awareness, represents a significant step forward that has the potential to go well beyond mere legislative standards. As such, welfare is bundled together with other contemporary consumer concerns such as the environment and health into a package of newly commodified 'goods'. The introduction of this new and growing set of actors in the debate, retailers as well as consumers, ultimately messes up the concept of animal welfare even more and further politicizes the competing welfare ontologies that exist within science. Yet, in doing so, they collectively counter the long standing disavowal of animal lives and animal realities in the processes associated with providing humans food, and this is surely a progress. There is no easy politics to the question of animal welfare. Any animal happiness that may result from heightened welfare provision still ends just as suddenly with premature death. The ethical impasse remains.