April 2021

· 5 min read

From Farm to Food: Why It’s Important to Care About Animal Welfare

As concern for socially responsible food grows, NSF helps consumers make informed choices about animal wellness at the grocery store.
Cow drinking water - How to Play a Part in Creating a More Humane World for Farm Animals | NSF

If you are like many grocery shoppers looking for beef, pork, chicken or eggs, you may wonder what exactly those labels saying things like “treated humanely,” “ethically treated” or “cage-free” really mean. Do these animal welfare labels tell consumers what they need to know?

The good news is that typically they mean that your grocer — and producers in the food chain — care about how animals are raised. They have set their critical sights on the food we buy and eat: where it comes from, how it is produced and whether it was raised humanely.

“Proper labeling shows that they have selected animal welfare-certified products from producers who agree there is no room for animal cruelty and who are committed to following rigorous standards for animal welfare,” says Dr. Elaine Vanier, a veterinarian and the animal wellness program lead for NSF.

“However, not every product will carry a label,” she says. “This does not mean that there has not been a commitment to meeting animal welfare requirements. Sometimes, the best way to be reassured is to research the brand or retailer’s policy on animal welfare.” The Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare (BBFAW) is a leading global measure of farm animal welfare management, policy commitment, performance and disclosure, which serves as a strong “report card” for participating food companies, she adds.

“It’s important to think about animal welfare because it is a huge piece of livestock and poultry industry sustainability, not only because it the right thing to do, but because people really do care about animals and how they are raised,” says Dr. Elaine. “It also goes beyond just animal welfare because ensuring product food safety and responsible use of antibiotics in animals also impacts the health and safety of consumers. We have to keep the right perspective about consuming products derived from animals, and requiring that they be treated the right way because not all of us choose or have the option to eat a completely plant-based diet.”

As the demand for socially responsible food grows, consumers rely on these labels to ensure our concern to avoid animal suffering is demonstrated through that commitment to animal welfare and wellness at every stage of livestock and poultry production from birth/hatch to slaughter, and that producers comply with established standards throughout the entire process.

We can also play a part in animal welfare and wellness through the food choices we make every day, says Dr. Elaine. Farmers will produce, and retailers will sell, what shoppers demand. So, consumers asking for brands that use more humanely raised products has made and will continue to make a difference in how farm animals are treated.

"Animal wellness refers to the quality of life experienced by the animal and how the animal is coping in its current situation and surroundings."

To help this happen, NSF’s experts offer animal wellness and animal welfare services for the food supply chain (like auditing, certification and verification). We also advocate for greater industry transparency, providing services that allow producers to show all the good things they do to make safer, nutritious and affordable food. We have a strong global presence in more 180 countries with teams who understand the local business needs and can go on site to audit top manufacturers, restaurants and retailers, says Dr. Elaine.

NSF’s Global Animal Wellness Standards provide the food industry a strong animal wellness system for the entire protein supply chain. The Global Animal Wellness Standards are the first of their kind, offering a consistent, global approach to meet producers’ commitment to animal wellness.

What Is Animal Wellness?

NSF has expanded the popular industry definition of “animal welfare” and focuses on “animal wellness” because it better describes the complex overlaps and interactions with a more holistic understanding when it comes to environmental, physical, social and emotional factors, Dr. Elaine says.

“Animal wellness is more comprehensive than animal welfare and NSF takes that broader view,” she says. “Animal wellness refers to the quality of life experienced by the animal and how the animal is coping in its current situation and surroundings.”

The four NSF principals for animal wellness include the five freedoms and welfare principals:

  • Good health: Freedom from pain, injury and disease as demonstrated by absence of disease, injuries and pain management procedures
  • Good feeding: Freedom from hunger, thirst and malnutrition as demonstrated through absence of prolonged hunger and thirst
  • Good housing: Freedom from physical and temperature discomfort, including comfort around resting, temperature and ease of movement
  • Appropriate behavior: Freedom to express normal patterns and behavior and the freedom from fear and distress, as demonstrated by expression of social and other behaviors natural to the animal, good human-animal relationships and a positive emotional state

How You Can Identify Humanely Raised Animal Products

Dr. Elaine offers these tips for shoppers:

  1. Ask questions. Your grocer, deli/meat retailer or supermarket should be able to explain the policies they have for animal welfare and wellness and how they communicate that to their suppliers.
  2. Look for labels that specifically indicate humane treatment
  3. Visit your store’s website and look for their statements and policies about animal wellness
  4. You can also look for more information from industry associations (like BBFAW) and about the different kinds of third-party audits and certifications for animal welfare and animal wellness.

She refers to the words of animal welfare expert Temple Grandin that best sum up “the why” of animal wellness and our connection to food: “I think using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we've got to do it right. We've got to give those animals a decent life and we've got to give them a painless death. We owe the animal respect.” Grandin designed the humane handling systems used at more than half of the cattle-processing facilities in the U.S. and around the globe.

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