What is animal welfare?

It is very difficult to define exactly what animal welfare is because people’s attitudes to animals vary so much in our community.  However, it is generally accepted in the community and by regulators that people have a responsibility for animals in their care and must ensure they are free from distress and that they are content.

Perhaps the easiest guide to understanding animal welfare is the five freedoms approach developed in the UK.  This defines welfare in terms of:

  1. freedom from hunger and thirst
  2. freedom from discomfort
  3. freedom from pain, injury and disease
  4. freedom to express normal behaviour
  5. freedom from fear and distress.

Why must animals be handled humanely?

There are six main reasons why animals should be handled humanely at slaughtering plants:

  • ethical reasons
  • product quality
  • product safety
  • legal requirements
  • customer expectations
  • company profitability.

Ethical reasons

What society considers right and wrong is changing all the time. Animal handling practices that were considered acceptable 25 years ago are no longer acceptable to society as a whole. Society takes a grim view of the mistreatment of animals and the meat processing industry’s reputation can be badly affected by poor animal welfare practices.

Animals do not understand that they are about to be slaughtered. The stress they feel at slaughtering plants is largely due to the way people handle them in the strange environment. The infliction of unnecessary stress and pain to animals is becoming less acceptable morally to society, so measures are now required to limit this pain, particularly in the process of slaughter.

Product quality

Inhumane handling, causing animal stress, results in an inferior meat product and causes, for example, pale soft exudative pork and dark cutting beef. Both of these are a direct result of stress prior to slaughter.


Product safety

Inhumane handling, causing animal stress, results in a weakened immune system that can show up as a growth of gut bacteria such as salmonella and E. Coli. For example, under stressful conditions the number of animals shedding Salmonella can increase from 5% to 85% of the mob within a matter of hours. These bacteria are potential food poisoning agents or pathogens and the risk of potentially dangerous contamination during dressing is greatly increased.

Legal requirement

Animal protection and its enforcement is a legislated requirement of Commonwealth, state and territory governments.

Ensuring the welfare of animals in lairage and yards at an abattoir is the responsibility of all those working with those animals.  Failure to treat and manage these animals properly is against the law and each state has specific legislation dealing with the prevention of cruelty to animals.  In addition the abattoirs registration/licensing is dependent on compliance with both this legislation and the Industry Animal Welfare Standards.

You need to know the animal handling requirements at your workplace. There are national and state laws and codes for animal welfare, so what your workplace follows will depend on your State or Territory, the species you slaughter and if your enterprise is export-registered or domestic-registered.

In 2005 the National Animal Welfare Standards for establishments processing animals for human consumption were first produced (and have since been revised to the Industry Animal Welfare Standards).  These now form the basis for all animal welfare regulatory requirements at slaughtering plants.

Customer expectations

For these reasons the workplace animal welfare SOPs and the relevant work instructions incorporate all of these requirements.

Customers such as the major retail chains and fast food outlets are becoming increasingly concerned about the animal welfare aspects of meat production as adverse perceptions could impinge on their sales of meat.  For these reasons the workplace animal welfare SOPs and the relevant work instructions incorporate all of these requirements.

Countries importing our meat are also increasingly insistent on good animal welfare practices at livestock processing plants.

Failure to treat animals properly can cause a meat processing plant to be fined, loose its customers and/or its registration.  Workers also have responsibilities and can be fined for acts of cruelty or can be dismissed for not following the company’s animal welfare practice requirements.

Company profitability

There is a direct relationship between animal welfare and the profits that a processing plant makes.  Stock that is poorly treated:

  • gets injured more often causing bruising and therefore decreases the value of the carcase
  • is more stressed and this results in a poorer eating quality of the meat
  • results in hides and pelts being damaged and reduces their market value