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Welfare Quality®: a valuable resource but not the holy grail

Welfare Quality® has been running now for almost five years and the project has become well known both in Europe and worldwide. People from outside Welfare Quality (WQ) frequently refer to our project at a wide variety of conferences and meetings, often including contributions from WQ partners. WQ also features in policy papers and discussions (e.g. within both the European Commission and the European Parliament). What was originally a project acronym has developed into a catch phrase that is used even in normal everyday language, like: ‘we need to improve the welfare quality of our product’. This illustrates the widespread recognition of the aims of Welfare Quality® and contributes enormously to the impact of our work.

However, I have noticed a number of misunderstandings as to what WQ is about exactly and what it will deliver.
Here are a few of these misunderstandings:
  • Sometimes people refer to WQ ‘standards’ and they indeed believe that we are defining some level of animal welfare to comply with in order to acquire a WQ ‘stamp’. This misconception often expands to include the setting of design requirements. This is absolutely not what WQ is about. Instead of setting standards, we develop standardized ways of assessing animal welfare and a standardized way of integrating this information, enabling farms and slaughterhouses to be assigned to one of four categories (from poor to good animal welfare). Thus WQ concerns standardization of the methodology of assessment and integration, not the definition of a normative level of animal welfare.
  • One of the innovations of the WQ animal welfare assessment system is that, for very good reasons (c.f. Blokhuis et al., 2003), it focuses more on animal-based measures (e.g. related to condition, health aspects, injuries, behaviour, etc.) than most existing approaches, which largely concentrate on design or management-based characteristics (e.g. size of cage or pen, flooring specifications etc.). Of course, this does not mean that resource-based or management-based factors are ignored in WQ; many of these are important features. A particular attraction of the animal-based measures is that they show, as it were, the ‘outcome’ of the interaction between the animal and its environment (housing design and management), and this outcome is assessed by the WQ assessment system. Of course, farmers should use the information from this assessment and target specific aspects where animal welfare might be improved. The factors that farmers can control and improve are obviously design and management-based ones. This is why WQ puts a lot of effort into establishing mechanisms to feed back detailed assessment information to farmers and into developing practical strategies to support farmers in their attempts to improve animal welfare.
    As alluded to above, our focus on animal-based measures does not mean they should be our sole focus and that, for instance, we get rid of all regulations based on design parameters. If we know for certain that specific design characteristics or management procedures are bad for animal welfare, then the most obvious way to prevent their undesirable consequences is of course to not allow them.
  • Another misunderstanding relates to labeling. Some people believe that the main goal of our project is to develop a Welfare Quality® label. This is not the case. Of course labeling of products is one way of informing consumers about the welfare status of the animals that produce a product or to distinguish a product on animal welfare grounds. WQ takes the approach of developing a flexible animal welfare assessment system that can be used for different purposes; to substantiate claims related to a label is just one of them. At the moment, WQ does not aim to develop its own animal welfare scheme and label. We do not consider that to be our ‘core business’. Instead, we develop assessment and integration systems, practical improvement strategies and support tools around these. Further use and implementation of WQ outcomes lies in the role of external actors such as private companies, production chains, existing quality schemes, etc.
  • Every now and again, I hear people say ‘just wait until WQ is finished, then we will get all the solutions and we will know what to do to ensure good animal welfare’. This worries me, because I feel these people may have set their expectations too high. We have made excellent progress in WQ: we defined clear principles and criteria for good animal welfare, we developed and standardized practical assessment measures for the main categories of food producing animals, we developed a standardized procedure to integrate information from the different welfare domains, we developed practical welfare improvement strategies and many support tools, we brought animal scientists and social scientists together in a common effort, etc.; but Welfare Quality® will not provide the ‘holy grail’. The outcomes of our work will continue to evolve. For instance, the measures and results still have to be improved and refined, new technologies should be incorporated, and a process of practical implementation at a European level in concert with stakeholders still has to start.

Dr  ir Harry J. Blokhuis, project coordinator, harry.blokhuis@hmh.slu.se