The European Commission obtained official observer status within the OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health) this week at the first-ever global conference on animal welfare. The event brought together the 166 member countries of the OIE and various OIE-affiliated international organisations.
While the EU has always been involved in the work of the OIE, the observer status will now enable the Commission to advance the EU's view on all international animal health and welfare issues. At the opening of the conference, Commissioner David Byrne promised to continue to actively support the OIE in its activities and welcomed the initiative to organise for the first time a global conference on animal welfare.
"Getting animal welfare recognised at an international level is important for European citizens. The EU supports every step to achieve higher animal welfare standards not just within the EU but also worldwide," he said.
The global conference is designed to increase the transparency of the OIE's policy development. The event, which runs from the 23 to 25 February in Paris, will incorporate the views of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and pressure groups in its work on animal welfare.
The conference will also involve the preparation of internationally applicable guiding principles and standards for animal welfare. The OIE wants to ensure that its international standards are 'science-based,' and prevent countries from putting in place measures designed merely to restrict foreign competition.
This is a pertinent point. There is concern that if animal welfare standards are not 'science-based,' then they may reflect anthropomorphic thinking or uninformed public opinion about how animals ought to be handled. The conference will therefore provide an introduction to the science of animal welfare and its application to animal welfare guiding principles and standards.
There has been a lot of EU activity in this field. This month, European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin announced a €43 million investment plan designed to improve the efficiency of the food supply chain, which included a strategy to better integrate animal welfare and food production.
"Meeting consumers' expectations for good and safe food, while at the same time ensuring sustainable agriculture and fostering a competitive industry, requires ambitious R&D efforts and strong cooperation at European level," he said.
The animal welfare strategy aims to improve animal welfare in order to improve food quality. Appropriate on-farm welfare assessment methodologies are being developed together with information frameworks and an array of targeted, high priority welfare improvements.
"We are now moving into an era of industrialised food production, processing and distribution where the focus of research changes," said Professor P. Cunningham of Trinity College, Dublin, a leading expert in agro-food production and a member of the European Group on Life Sciences (EGLS).
"Science is producing challenging technologies; globalisation brings new risks as well as benefits; and concerns for ethical and environmental issues have moved high on the agenda."