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Animal Welfare

Consumers increasingly demand that animals intended for human consumption are treated well. It is now well-known that health and food quality depend, directly or indirectly, upon a good protection of animal welfare. To address this need in recent years, the EU legislation on this subject has continuously expanded and is likely to increase further in the coming years. "Animal welfare" borns as a thematic issue because, due to the natural evolution, each animal species has been "provided" with physical, physiological and behavioral suited to deal with various difficulties also arising from their living environment. Well-being is an intrinsic condition of the animal: the person who is able to adapt to the environment is in a state of well-being, on the contrary the person can not adapt (due to his/her own psychophysical characteristics, or because it is prevented by external factors) will bear stress conditions.

"Wellness is a state of complete health, both physical and mental, in which the animal is in harmony with its environment" (Hughes, 1976). Since all animals went through this evolutionary path, and each species has adapted to a particular habitat, any definition must take into account the welfare of the environment, the animal’s specific physiology and behavior. Farm animals have a set of needs similar to those of their wild ancestors, although some needs have changed during domestication. It is obvious that basic needs, such as food, water and shelter are not changed in the transition from wildness to domestication. Less obvious that the wild animals’s instinct expressed in their behaviours associated with reproduction, food search, water and shelter, are still present in domestic animals. In 1964 Ruth Harrison published the book "Animal Machines" that raised the question of the welfare of animals reared intensively.

Following the uproar caused by this book, the British government commissioned a report to a group of researchers, among whose a veterinarian who issued the Brambell Report. This report, as well as being one of the first official documents on animal welfare, has disciplined the principle of five freedoms for animal welfare, (later re-assessed in the British farm animal welfare council in 1979):

1. freedom from hunger, thirst and malnutrition;

2. Freedom from discomfort environmental;

3. freedom from diseases and injuries;

4. freedom to demonstrate the behavioral characteristics of specific species;

5. Freedom from fear and stress.

Some of these "freedom" are universally recognised and traditionally applied by farmers, others fall within the "historical" competence of the veterinarian. The last two freedom are something not always easily understood and applied and they relate mostly to the scientific knowledge that operators should have particularly veterinaries. The last two freedoms, very difficult to be evaluated objectively, represent also the highlights of European legislation on welfare farm animals.

The welfare assessment involves a series of responses that the animal puts in place to adapt to the environment in which it resides: the body responds to different environmental situations not only with behavioral changes - and the first early signs of adaptation needs - but also with physiological and immune mechanisms, which may have an impact on its health and growth. That is why the studies carried out on this subject, increasingly take into account a series of reactions, which are commonly called "indicators" of adaptation.

Their use can help to identify possible acute stress and / or chronic over problems that over time can have a negative impact on livestock production. Even though animal welfare cannot be measured as simple variables like height or length, in any case it can be evaluated by considering the various aspects and related problems. All the systems now in use are based on a range of evaluation parameters, which can be distinguished in two main categories:

1. parameters relating to the animals, which measure the reactivity and the ability to adapt to specific environment, e.g. physiological and behavioural health.

2. parameters related to the farm environment and its management, such as the size and characteristics of the breeding structures (e.g. floors, microclimate, cleaning), the bedding quality, the number of animals.

The issue of animal welfare, ultimately, is - and will increasingly be seen - as an essential component of an "integrated system of animal origin food quality production", that offers to consumers products from environmentally friendly farms, where animals are raised respecting their basic needs.