New Initiative for Global Animal Welfare

This year a virulent bird flu spread across much of Asia killing 22 people. Over 100 million birds, including chickens, ducks, and lovebirds, died or were hurriedly slaughtered and then buried or burned to prevent the disease's spread. Many of these living creatures were burned alive. In February 2003, an avian flu outbreak resulted in slaughter of 11 million chickens in the Netherlands. Fifty Dutch workers became ill and a veterinarian died.

In the United States, avian influenza resulted in the slaughter of 328,000 chickens in Maryland in March, while over 80,000 were killed in Delaware in February. In Texas, a highly virulent strain resulted in slaughter of 6,600 broiler chickens. In 2001 and 2002, over 4.7 million chickens were killed in Virginia when avian influenza struck the region.

In the United Kingdom in 2001, in a prolonged, mass slaughter intended to prevent spread of foot and mouth disease, over ten million animals were killed, perhaps 90% of whom were not infected. Two Cardiff law professors charged that pressure to kill so many animals caused them to be "killed in ways which were almost always unacceptably, indeed criminally, inhumane and very often so horribly cruel as to be an occasion of lasting national shame."

While the numbers of animals affected by disease outbreaks are staggering, the effects on farm animals of illness itself, as well as the fear, distress, injury, and pain to animals associated with collection and transport of millions of birds and other animals to mass slaughter points, are of deep concern. Economists assess the costs of such diseases and disease eradication measures in the billions of dollars, yet it is the animals themselves who pay the highest price, a cost that is too often disregarded.

Against this backdrop, the Animal Welfare Institute welcomes the initiative by Office International de Epizooties (OIE), the World Organization for Animal Health. The 2001-2005 strategic plan mandated OIE to prepare an international guide to good practices for animals. Subsequently, OIE identified an immediate need to address welfare issues surrounding killing of animals for disease control purposes; slaughter of animals for human consumption; and land and sea transport of live animals. Ad hoc expert groups were appointed to advise the OIE Working Group on Animal Welfare and to prepare detailed guidelines and recommendations.

The international standing of OIE places it in a unique position to improve the welfare of farm animals. OIE is the official standards setting organization for animal health and zoonoses under the World Trade Organization (WTO), drafting standards for WTO relating to all "animal production food safety" risks. Animal diseases, noted OIE Director General Dr. Bernard Vallat, "are a major factor affecting animal suffering, poverty and the risk of food-borne diseases."

In fulfilling its new mandate, Dr. Vallat declared, "we have had to delve deeper into the heart of the relationship between animals and humans. The OIE, formerly open only to a circle of experts and specialists, is now moving closer to consumers and citizens." From February 23-25, the OIE convened in Paris an assembly of OIE representatives and scientific advisors and animal welfare stakeholders to respond to reports from the ad hoc expert groups. AWI participated as an animal welfare nongovernmental organization (NGO).

The effort by OIE represents the first time an international organization, having the standing to set definitive animal welfare standards recognized by WTO, has agreed to consider not only the physiological health and disease status of farm animals but also animals' subjective experience of the conditions in which they are raised, handled, transported, and slaughtered. The OIE has selected internationally recognized animal welfare scientists to contribute to the OIE deliberations. AWI is also gratified that OIE seeks continued involvement of NGOs having specific experience and knowledge in the area of farm animal welfare. We look forward to further cooperation with OIE in this important effort for animals.