Farm animal welfare: a regulatory history

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Farm animal welfare: a regulatory history

  • Dr Abigail Woods
  • Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine
  • Imperial College London

The governance of FAW

  • EU
  • British government
    • 2006 Animal welfare act
    • Voluntary codes of practice
    • FAWC, Animal Health
  • Private
    • farm assurance schemes.

The British government’s role

  • Key questions:
  • How / why / when did it become involved in regulating farm animal welfare?
  • What did it think welfare was?

Origin stories: The ancient contract (Rollin)

Origin stories: The rise of welfare (Webster)

  • 1965 Brambell committee
  • 1968 Agriculture Act
    • Welfare standards
    • FAWAC
    • Welfare codes

Origin stories

  • See welfare as a fundamentally new concept, that arose in the 1960s as a result of intensive farming practices, and required new government interventions.
  • But all disciplines have their (often historically unsupported) founding myths –– is there any truth in this one?

A plea for historical continuity:

  • The 1968 act and the subsequent welfare codes simply extended to farms the type of measures laid down in earlier legislation for protection of animals in transit.
  • Major change did not take place until c1980 (at the earliest).

i) The legislative picture

  • By 1960, farm animals protected by a patchwork of legislation:
    • In public spaces (1822, 1835 1849, 1911)
    • In transit (1869, 1894, 1927, 1950 Acts)
    • At slaughterhouses (1954, 1958)

In public spaces:

  • In public spaces:
    • Included in broader legislation (1911) to prevent animal cruelty and avoidable suffering
    • Responsibility of the Home Office & Local Authorities.

In transit:

  • In transit:
    • Provoked by growth in transport, associated disease spread and humanitarian concerns
    • Responsibility of state vets & Local authorities

ii) Intensification & the animal body

  • Drive to increase productivity and critique of practices date from at least the 19thC
  • eg urban dairies
  • Eg inter-war ‘progressive’ dairying

ii) Intensification & the animal body

  • Q:
  • So why did state-led welfare interventions not happen earlier?
  • A:
  • Such practices were seen as ‘bad farming’
  • State intervention not considered: nature would restore order, eg by disease.

ii) Intensification & the animal body

  • Post-WWII
  • New definitions of good and bad farming
  • Changing nature of intensification
    • Larger scale; indoor
    • Farm becomes a factory (or a cattle truck?)
  • P Brassley, ‘Output and technical change in 20th century British Agriculture’, Ag Hist Rev 48 (2000), p62

ii) Intensification & the animal body

  • Post-WWII: new critique
    • No longer expect redress from nature
    • Farmers are harming nature with aid of science (Carson, Silent Spring, 1962)

ii) Intensification & the animal body

  • 1964: Harrison’s Animal Machines
  • Not the first critique of factory farming; but the first to prompt MAFF action
    • unemotional tone
    • attacked MAFF defences.
    • huge publicity
    • political pressure.
  • Officials look to transit regulations for inspiration

iii) The concept of welfare

  • Pre-1960s, key terms are animal protection, cruelty, suffering and humanity
  • Welfare used mainly in relation to ‘welfare societies’
  • Use of welfare increases early 60s.
  • Enters mainstream following 1964/5 Brambell committee inquiry ‘into the welfare of animals’

iii) The concept of welfare

  • What did it mean?
  • For Brambell committee:
    • physical and mental wellbeing
  • For MAFF officials, farmers and many vets:

iii) The concept of welfare

  • Doesn’t the new legislation / codes implement a new concept of welfare?
  • Closely resemble transit regulations & drawn up by the same people (vets).
  • MAFF’s legal understanding is that welfare = ‘absence of unnecessary pain or distress’: FAWAC told to work within this definition.

From animal protection to animal wellbeing

  • Driven by Harrison
  • institutionalised by FAWC (1979)
  • Aided by scientific research (Dawkins)
  • Re-iterated by 1980-1 agriculture select committee


  • The early history of FAW regulation in Britain amounted to a re-branding exercise:
  • From the protection of animals in transit….to the promotion of animal welfare.

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