Animal Well-Being Issues Associated with International Trade, Production and Animal Health

John J. McGlone Department of Animal Science and Food Technology
Texas Tech University
Lubbock, TX 79409-2141

ABSTRACT: The USA enjoys a low cost of production associated with a large natural resource base in fertile soils and productive crop environments. The potential for increased export of animal products is at least 3-fold greater than in 1998 – representing a potential increase to the USA economy of hundreds of billions of dollars. Limitations to both domestic and international consumption of animal products among developed countries centers on issues of concern to society. Animal well-being is an important society issue that may in the future limit our ability to export animal products because we do not meet higher welfare standards of some countries (the EU in particular). The questions of standards of animal well-being will be answered based both on sound science and consumer perceptions of production practices. The science of farm animal welfare is a new science and it is in itself a multi-disciplinary science using at least the areas of behavior, neuroscience, physiology (especially endocrinology and reproduction), immunology and animal health. Animal well-being is best examined in a multi-disciplinary fashion with teams of scientists concerned with each element of sustainable production systems in mind. Animal production systems must be developed that are animal friendly, environmentally friendly, worker friendly, community friendly, safe, healthy to consumers and economically competitive. These complex criteria can not be studied by small teams of scientists. Groups of scientists should be formed in truly multi-disciplinary clusters to develop sustainable production systems that capitalize on our powerful natural resources base and help feed a growing world demand for high quality animal products.

Key Words: Animal welfare, sustainable agriculture, food safety, environmental issues,


The USA enjoys a reputation as the most efficient and productive agriculture in the world. In many commodities including most animal products, the USA natural resource base allows for a low cost of production. Contributing to the low cost of production are improvements in production efficiency and a fairly recent consolidation within poultry, swine and feedlot cattle enterprises.

This paper begins with a review of the potential for expansion of USA exports of animal products and then considers limitations to maintaining our current levels of production and to further expansion. The paper then considers the role of issues of animal welfare and other society issues in potentially limiting current production levels and export potential. Finally, a strategy to have scientific research be a critical element in policy decisions is developed.

Potential for USA animal product exports

American animal agriculture is entering a new era with increased export of animal products to meet world demand. Data are presented in Table 1 that show over a 200% increase in the value of animal products exported from 1990 to 1997. But the potential for export of animal products is much greater.

The exact dollar value can not be precisely forecasted, but we can get a rough idea of the potential for the USA economy if we exported animal products to their maximum potential in 1998 terms. So many variables impact these estimates that they can only be considered general estimates of our export potential.

Table 1. Value of USA meat product exports for 1990 and 1997. Additional animal products such as dairy products, table eggs, hides and tallow are not included. Table values are in 1,000 of US dollars. USDA-FAS, 1999.

Animal Product



% Change









Poultry meats




Variety meats




Total meat & poultry




By 1998, the USA was exporting over 56 million metric tons of course grains (corn, sorghum, barley and oats) and soybean meal (Table 2). An interesting interpretation of the relative amount of grain and soybean meal is gleaned by an estimate of the crude protein content of these exported plant products. If one assumes an average crude protein content of the grains at 10% and the average crude protein content of the soybean meal at 44%, and if we mix the grain and soybean in a formulated diet, the crude protein of the mix is about 15% -- and the value is probably underestimated. This is very similar to the crude protein content of an average animal feed.

Table 2. Volume of USA exports of course grains and soybean meal 1997/98. USDA-FAS, 1999.

Plant product

1,000 metric tons

All course grains


Soybean meal




If we were to feed the 56 million metric tons of grain-soybean feed to USA livestock with an average feed:gain ratio of 4:1 (an estimate that averages feed:gain ratios for beef, pork and poultry), then one can see that the USA could export about 14 million metric tons of animal product. Since the USA now exports just over 4 million metric tons of animal products (Table 3, again, this number is an underestimate), then the USA could have a 3 to 4-fold increase in our total animal product export with no import of feedstuffs and no additional grain or soybean production. The current retail value of the pork, beef, dairy, lamb and poultry industries is hundreds of billions of dollars. A 3-fold increase in USA export of animal products would be the single largest boost to the USA economy in history representing hundreds of billions of dollars.

Indeed, due to our massive grain and soybean production, the USA potential for increased export of animal products is among the greatest in the world. What could limit our export potential?

Table 3. Volume of USA exports of meat and poultry for 1997/98. USDA-FAS, 1999.

Animal product

1,000 metric tons





Poultry meats


Variety meats




Predictions about the need for animal products with a high animal welfare standard

Many theorists have suggested that the tide consumers is towards welfare-positive production systems. Conventional wisdom is reflected in the recent CAST (1997) report:

Judging from the western European experience, U.S. animal producers can expect ethical values to influence change in animal care practices.

Animal care practices can change through legislation, changes in trade agreements that require importing countries to adopt the countries welfare standards or changes in consumer purchasing practices. Each of these areas is discussed separately.

Many recent theorists have suggested that interest in animal welfare is rising among the general population. I dismiss this view as simplistic and unsupported. It is true that there are more writings and more boycott campaigns about farm animal welfare than in the past. But such writings and activism have not resulted in any new legislation or significant change in production practices.

The legislative approach

An examination of USA legislation on farm animal welfare shows laws passed in 1873, 1921 and 1958 (Table 3). Does this sound like an increase in interest? A total of 3 laws in over 100 years does not provide evidence for an increase in interest. And the USA has not had new legislation regulating food animal practices since 1958.

Laws have been proposed for farm animal welfare over the past few years. The bill that got the furthest was the Veal Calf Protection Act (1989). This bill would have limited production practices on veal farms, with an eye towards improving their welfare (according to some bill supporters). This bill resulted in a full day of hearings, but then it died in sub-committee. The downer animal issue caused a re-examination of the Packers and Stockyards Act. But again, no significant change in farm practices resulted. No other farm animal proposed legislation has made it to the level of a congressional committee hearing.

My interpretation of these historical events is simple. The activists of 1873, 1921 and 1958 were more effective than the activists of today. And public sentiment in favor of consideration of the welfare of farm animals was certainly present in the 1800s as well as earlier in this century. My interpretation is that there is an underlying feeling of compassion for farm animal welfare among some consumers and that certain events trigger a rally behind proposed legislation or buying practices. For example, the book The Jungle (1906) was credited with raising public awareness for the plight of animals and workers in packing plants. But it took from 1906 until 1958 to get meaningful legislation passed. And that legislation was based on science and professional judgement, not the whims of activists.

Table 4. USA laws that impact farm animal welfare.


Year Passed

28 hour law (limiting travel of livestock by train to 28 hours without stop)



Packers and Stockyards Act (establishing practices at plants and stockyards that include, in small part, animal welfare issues).



Humane Slaughter Act (covers practices at packing plants to assure humane slaughter)


Other significant laws, not related to farm animals


Animal Welfare Act (specifically excludes farm animals)


Horse Protection Act


International Trade

The need for international sale of US animal products will only increase over time. Exporting animal products to Asia, Latin America or Africa have no reported animal welfare criteria. But trade of animal products to the EU, and especially to the some western European countries (UK, Scandinavia, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, etc.) should consider animal welfare criteria seriously.

Animal welfare has the ability to be a clear non-tariff trade barrier. The country with an arguable higher animal welfare standard could say that imported products would have to meet the internal animal welfare standard. This approach could be interpreted in two ways: either the country has a genuine concern to farm animal welfare and its consumers only want such products, or an animal welfare trade barrier could be considered an artificial barrier constructed simply to keep competing products out.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) has rules to deal with any proposed non-tariff trade barrier. The WTO limits the ability of member countries from restricting imports based on animal welfare standards the member country deems unacceptable (Garner, 1998).

The WTO took up the issue of animal welfare and environmental issues at a meeting in December, 1996 in Singapore (Erlichman, 1997). The attempt to widen environmental and animal welfare standards (for farm animals and other issues) failed. The primary reason for failure of adoption of higher animal welfare standards given by Erlichman was that these would add to the cost of production and this runs against the basic free trade concept.

Activism towards more animal welfare positive products continues in the EU, both in member countries and EU-wide. Agricultural animals have traditionally been labeled as goods in the EU founding trade agreement The Treaty of Rome. A recent campaign by a group called Compassion in World Farming (CWF) has lead to a re-designation of animals as sentient beings. CWF delivered over 1 million signatures on a petition at the Amsterdam Inter-governmental Conference in June of 1997. The EU members recognized that animals are “sentient beings” and that any EU policies should “pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals.”

Based on the tide of sentiment from recent EU policies, the USA can expect to be held to their farm animal welfare standards some time in the future, either through trade agreements (which are not possible at this time) or through direct marketing requirements.

Consumer activism

During the recent period of increased activism (1980-2000), three significant campaigns and many minor ones were launched by activist groups. The first major campaign was against veal calves. A second campaign was directed specifically against Perdue broilers by the late Henry Spira. A third campaign was by led the Humane Farming Association against confinement of sows. None of these campaigns have caused legislation nor have they caused significant change in consumer buying practices in the USA.

Direct consumer requests for welfare-positive animal products have driven some Northern European retail outlets to request such products. The best example is the UK supermarket giants Tesco and Marks & Spenser who carry animal products certified as welfare-friendly by the British RSPCA. These “freedom foods” are widely available in the UK.

In spite of WTO rules, UK farmers have recently been reported in the media (Murphy, 1998) as suggesting that their pork is produced in a more welfare friendly manner. Since WTO rules prevent restricting import based on animal welfare, an alternative, restrictive approach was needed. Thus, UK farmers are pressing for labels of domestic and imported pork that indicates the higher welfare standards are met with the domestic product (Murphy, 1998). Any attempt to penetrate the UK retail markets would be more successful if the products met the RSPCA standards.

In the USA, consumer awareness of farm animal welfare concerns is considered, in general, to be very low. However, the tide of public sentiment may be changing. Plous (1998) surveyed animal marchers at the March for Animals in Washington DC both in 1990 and 1996. In 1990, 24% of the activists felt that farm animal issues should be a top priority. In 1996, 48% of the marchers felt that farm animal issues should be the top priority. We must keep in mind the few marchers surveyed almost surely do not represent the views of the general public.

In summary, three potential mechanisms may redirect production systems towards more animal welfare-friendly systems. These are, in priority order:

  • Direct consumer intervention to request, and pay for, welfare-friendly products
  • International trade requirements to meet some animal welfare standard
  • New USA legislation

The potential for new laws on farm animal welfare is slim at this time. And the ability to set enforceable trade barriers based on animal welfare standards is possible only in the future.

A logical approach

A pro-active approach to the situation is to develop products that are clearly welfare-friendly based on science and consumer preferences. If such products were available, and if later legislation or trade barriers were erected, then these products would be available and more welfare-friendly products could be directed into these market channels as the market needs developed. This later approach, the “fill-the-market-niche” approach is the only way forward at this time. If science continues to refine better production systems and management practices, then these more positive systems could be adopted over time. If some production practices are not scientifically justified, but the consumer prefers these production systems, then they could pay for such products and re-direct a portion of the market towards this niche.

Potential limits to current animal production and future growth

Issues of concern to society about animal production include, but are not limited to environmental protection (air, water, soil), animal protection, worker health and safety, corporate farming, food safety, diet-health issues and international competitiveness. Some of theses issues are research-able in animal biology research while others would benefit from non-biology based research and critical thinking. Other areas of research in agricultural economics and rural sociology would be especially important for society concerns about corporate farming and international competitiveness.

The topic of this paper deals with animal well-being; However, animal well-being can not be discussed in vacuum. Making progress on one society issue ,often leads to consequences to other society issues. For example, pregnant sows are normally fed a diet that prevents them from getting fat and thereby invokes a continual hunger drive – and freedom from hunger is presented by many animal welfare groups as a fundamental need. To overcome the drive to eat, scientists have proposed feeding a high fiber diet to pregnant sows (refs …). The consequences of feeding a high fiber diet are significant for environmental concerns. Feeding non-ruminants a high fiber diet would add substantially to the waste nutrient output. Thus by making progress on one society issue (freedom from hunger) the environmental impact can be negative. And there has been little consideration of what effects feeding a high fiber diet may have on food safety (are they more covered in manure at slaughter?). And then, what about worker health if such a plan were adopted? And competitiveness? Making any management change with an eye to improving one society issue may seriously impact another society issue. The only way forward is to conduct truly multi-disciplinary research.

Table 5. Major society issues for animal agriculture.


Society Issue

Researchable in Animal Biology

Muti-disciplinary research of value?

Animal well-being



Environmental issues



Worker health and safety



Corporate farming/industry infrastructure



Food safety






International competitiveness



Sustainable Animal Production Systems


Each society issue has the ability to limit both maintenance of current production levels and future growth of the industries. Together they could kill any of our animal industries. The goal for American Agriculture is clearly continued, profitable growth. The goal of some activists range from slowing to eliminating the industries. The role of the scientist is more variable. Scientists have one of three behaviors in relation to society issues:

  • Scientists may actively support the animal industries, including questionable practices (note the tobacco industry scientists)
  • Scientists may simply provide unbiased information based on sound science (which may be used by activists, agriculture or consumers to make informed decisions)
  • Scientists could use science as a basis for advocacy of a given position (note the atomic energy scientists)

The author thanks Dr. Stephen Wilson and Dr. Julie Morrow-Tesch for helpful discussions during the development of this paper. Texas Tech University manuscript T-5-xxx.