Animal farming: Do our animal welfare laws need an overhaul?

There are calls for the Government to overhaul animal welfare laws regulating the farming industry, with critics saying a number of the codes are inconsistent with the Animal Welfare Act.

It comes after a landmark High Court decision late last year ruled the use of farrowing crates and mating stalls in the pig farming industry was "unlawful and invalid" and recommended they be phased out.

That case was brought to court by the New Zealand Animal Law Association (NZALA) and animal rights group Save Animals From Exploitation (SAFE), based on the argument that many of the specific laws controlling animal farming undermine the very Act they are supposed to serve.

Now, animal welfare lawyers say regulations in a number of other farming industries are also vulnerable to similar legal challenges and are urging the Government to frontfoot the issue and fix the issues preemptively. 

A recently released report by NZALA looked at the codes of welfare governing dairy cattle, pig farming, meat chickens, layer hens and farmed fish. It found a number of deficiencies in the regulations relating to these industries, as well as how the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC) - the independent body responsible for overseeing the codes and regulation-making process - operated.

The authors found 16 standards for dairy cattle failed to meet the requirements of the Act, while 11 of the rules governing pig farming fell short.

A dozen standards for meat chicken farming also failed to make the cut, along with 11 governing layer hen farming. Meanwhile the report concluded a complete lack of a code of welfare for farmed fish was "problematic" as "this means little guidance is provided to those in the industry as to adequate standards of animal welfare".

The authors of the report said they found a "substantial gap between the overarching standards of animal welfare prescribed by the Animal Welfare Act 1999 and the standards that are provided for in its delegated legislation, being codes of welfare and regulations".

In particular, they noted, was the failure to ensure the "physical, health and behavioral needs" of animals are met, as stipulated in the Act.

Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere, a senior law lecturer at Otago University and one of the report's authors, says from a legal perspective the situation is concerning.

"The whole point of those codes and regulations is to give a bit more specificity and detail about how the [Animal Welfare] Act should work. What they shouldn't be doing is undermining the point of the Act or it's core tenets," he told Newshub.

He said although the Act itself isn't perfect, "as things go it's a pretty decent piece of legislation" and is "really up-to-scratch in terms of what we would expect from modern animal welfare legislation".

"But it's the codes of welfare and regulations that have been made under it that just aren't top notch. A review of those codes is really urgent."

SAFE chief executive Debra Ashton said the discrepancy meant the reality of farming here was "in stark contrast to the image we try to portray internationally" and that it was "time for some serious action".

"It is clear we have a way to go if we want to be seen as world leaders in animal welfare," she said.

Industry confident in existing standards

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) says it stands by the current regulatory framework. Despite that, a number of reviews into various codes and regulations for farmed animals are already underway.

The dairy sector said a review into standards was "healthy" for the sector.
The dairy sector said a review into standards was "healthy" for the sector. Photo credit: Getty

One of those reviews is around the regulations meant to protect dairy cattle from heat stress.
As well as raising concerns around shelter for cows in both hot and cold conditions, the report also highlighted a need to address issues in the dairy industry relating to winter grazing, stocking densities and bobby calves, among other things.

DairyNZ said a review into standards for farmers was "healthy" for the sector.

"DairyNZ supports reviews of the codes of welfare and the Animal Welfare Act to ensure standards underpin care on-farm," Helen Thoday, senior manager of solutions and development, told Newshub.

"DairyNZ sees this framework as delivering for our animals, in tune with public expectations and consumers of our products.

"We see the welfare codes, just like farming, as being about continuous improvement - continually reviewing and checking new information and new expectations, either by the sector or others."

She added that most farmers already farm well above minimum standards.

More regulations could 'hit consumers in the pocket'

Representatives from the other industries mentioned in the report also said they were confident in the current standards, with some sectors expressing concern that tougher laws could have negative consequences for both farmers and consumers.

Lawyer Danielle Duffield, another of the report's authors, said although improving standards might come at a cost to farmers it is "necessary if the industry is to remain viable and acceptable by modern consumers who care about animal welfare".

She said some practices used in animal farming - such as the use of fast growing breeds and high stocking densities in the meat chicken industry - need to be phased out urgently.

Michael Brooks, executive director of Poultry Industry Association New Zealand and Egg Producers Federation of New Zealand, said he stood by the industry's welfare standards, which were developed by NAWAC with input from the SPCA and the NZ Veterinary Association. 

"No poultry industry in the world is perfect, particularly in the eyes of the animal activists who had a major input into the NZALA report, but we are confident New Zealand's welfare codes for poultry are among the highest in the world," he said.

With eggs and chicken meat being among the most affordable forms of protein for Kiwis, he said stricter rules could ultimately push prices up, which would affect New Zealanders in lower socio-economic groups.

"To make material changes to the codes in the interest of perceived improved welfare will hit consumers in the pocket, hard. As an industry we are always open to finding ways that improve welfare further, but only if the solutions are scientifically credible, realistic for our farmers and affordable for our customers."

Critics say stocking densities on chicken farms are too high.
Critics say stocking densities on chicken farms are too high. Photo credit: SAFE

Dr Chris Rodwell, MPI's veterinarian and director for animal health and welfare, said NAWAC was leading a "substantive review of all codes of welfare".

According to a timeline on MPI's website, reviews into the codes for layer hens and meat chickens are taking place as part of the poultry work programme, which is listed as a "current NAWAC priority". A code of welfare for breeding birds in the industry is also being developed and "anticipated to be in force 2020/21".

Working groups are also currently reviewing the existing codes for dairy cattle and pigs.

New Zealand Pork said it was working with NAWAC and MPI on the review and noted a number of measures already taking place by farmers.

"Ninety-five percent of commercial pig farms are certified under the PigCare audit programme,"  NZ Pork's animal welfare science advisor Dr Kirsty Chidgey told Newshub.

"This is an assessment that covers the whole farm, with producers being audited annually in relation to animal welfare, animal husbandry, animal health and general management practices, in addition to other factors that influence animal welfare."

The pork industry insists it follows world-leading animal welfare practices. It also maintains the use of farrowing crates - which the Government has confirmed will be phased out by 2025 - is the best solution to protect piglets from being crushed by their mothers and says more piglets will end up dying without them. It says the move to phase out farrowing crates and mating stalls is likely to force a number of pig farmers out of business, as they will struggle to compete with cheaper, imported pork.

Dr Chidgey says much of that imported pork comes from countries that have lower animal welfare standards than New Zealand, and in some cases from places that use practices that are illegal here.

A code of welfare for farmed fish is currently being developed.
A code of welfare for farmed fish is currently being developed. Photo credit: Getty

Along with reviews into existing standards for the industries above, MPI said a code of welfare for farmed fish was also being developed by NAWAC.

The NZALA report identified three main species of fish as being farmed in New Zealand: green-lipped mussels, Pacific oysters and King (Chinook) salmon.

Mark Preece, chairperson of the New Zealand Salmon Farmers Association, said although there were currently no codes for fish farming, the salmon industry was already using the best practices possible when farming.

"Our industry is already part of international certifications (that take fish welfare into account), as part of those certifications we are independently reviewed and audited, and we meet or exceed international best practices."

He said there were plans for NAWAC to visit salmon farms in the coming months as part of the development process.

'Structural problems within the system'

Ferrere said much of the blame for the situation lies not with farmers or any particular industry, but with NAWAC and the country's animal welfare system as a whole.

"We think the fundamental reason why this came to being was because there are a lot of structural problems with the system, the way NAWAC's resourced, the way it formulates codes, the capacity of it to actually undertake some really good scientific review and enact codes that are really up to snuff," he said.

"So ultimately we have made strong recommendations for reform in terms of the structure of NAWAC and how it's resourced, and ultimately made a strong call for a commissioner of animals, an independent body that would be able to oversee the system and ensure that these sorts of problems don't arise in the future."

Despite the report's conclusions, MPI said it was confident in the current process.

"We acknowledge the time and effort put in by the New Zealand Animal Law Association in compiling this report but we don't accept that the current regulatory framework is deficient," Dr Rodwell said.

"We are taking time to fully analyse the report and it is our intention to work with the association on important animal welfare matters, going forward."

Government urged to 'frontfoot' the issue

Ferrere said the recent High Court decision regarding farrowing crates and mating stalls was just "the tip of the iceberg" in terms of legal precedent.

"My view is that essentially every other standard that we've identified as not being appropriate in the various codes that we looked at would be vulnerable to the same sort of challenge," he said.

Despite this, he doesn't expect every issue will be tackled one by one, due to the costly and time-consuming nature of such a strategy.

"The big problem is that it costs a lot of money to bring judicial review proceedings and as a result I don't see each of those standards being challenged on a rolling basis - there just aren't the numbers of groups or organisations that have the motivation and are resourced enough to challenge them," he said.

"I think we should demand that the Government frontfoots it to a certain extent, trying to prevent those sorts of challenges from arising by fixing the codes of welfare and fixing the system that oversees them."

NAWAC chairperson Dr Gwyneth Verkerk said she had received a copy of the NZALA report, which the committee would be "taking the time to fully assess".