EFSA publishes guidance to improve poultry welfare

For farmed poultry — such as day-old chicks and other birds transported in containers — the food safety body for the European Union (EU) has issued new guidance aimed at improving animal welfare.

(Svilen Milev | Freeimages.com)
(Svilen Milev | Freeimages.com)

During the different stages of transportation, farm animals experience a range of environmental conditions that could impact their health and welfare. This is according to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Earlier this month, EFSA published a series of opinions covering animals reared for food production. This followed a number of studies carried out by the authority’s Animal Health and Welfare panel. Instigated by the European Commission, the panel looked at the welfare consequences of animals during transportation as individuals — such as cattle, horses, sheep, goats, and pigs — and in containers (including poultry and rabbits). 

Animal welfare linked to food safety

In general, EFSA recommends three main approaches to improving the well-being of animals in vehicles. These focus on the provision of more space, reducing maximum temperatures, and minimizing journey times. Importantly, all animals should be healthy, and fit for transport prior to movement.

Following its latest reviews, EFSA has developed specific temperature ranges to be maintained in vehicles for different classes of animal. It has also set minimum space allowances, and described how the different species experience hunger, thirst and fatigue over time during transportation.

These latest findings are likely to be incorporated into the European Commission’s review of the legislation in this area, scheduled for the second half of next year. Currently in effect across the EU is a regulation that came into force in 2005.

Commenting on the latest review, EFSA’s head of the department for Risk Assessment Production, Guihelm de Seze stressed that animal welfare is part of the One Health principle to which the agency is committed.

“Good animal welfare practices not only reduce unnecessary suffering, but also help to make animals healthier,” he said. “This is a key element for the safety of the food chain considering the close links between animal welfare, animal health and food-borne diseases.”

General guidance for transportation of domestic poultry

EFSA estimates that some 97% of all live animals traded within the EU are poultry, and those numbers averaged 1.4 billion per year in 2018 and 2019. 

Over this same period, 99% of all the journeys were by road, and around half lasted no more than 4 hours.

Overall, EFSA is recommending reduced journey times, more space, and lower temperatures for transporting farm animals in order to minimize the impacts on welfare.

It is also calling for better definition of fitness to travel, to include guidelines and thresholds for specific Animal-Based Measures (ABMs). Furthermore, everyone involved in the birds’ transportation process should receive appropriate training, while vehicles require proper maintenance. 

For poultry, EFSA recommends that any cases of poultry found dead-on-arrival above 0.1% should be fully investigated. 

EFSA’s new recommendations for broilers, turkeys, end-of-lay hens

Among EFSA’s latest points of guidance for these birds is that they are carried upright, with their wings held against their body. This is in contrast to the widespread current practice of carrying birds inverted, or by their legs or wings. During catching and crating, they should be handled with care.

Within the travel crate, all birds should have sufficient space to sit at the same time without overlapping, and to change position. EFSA says the height of the crate should allow all birds to sit naturally without the comb or head touching the top of the container. 

To avoid heat stress in the birds, the vehicle should be fitted with mechanical ventilation or air conditioning. 

For poultry, EFSA gives its recommendations in terms of Apparent Equivalent Temperature (AET). AET combines temperature and relative humidity within the transport crate, with figures below 40 indicating a “safe” level without heat stress. Values between 40 and 65 indicate a risk of heat stress (“alert”), while those over 65 fall into the “danger” zone. Under these conditions, journeys should not exceed 4 hours.

In order to avoid prolonged hunger, poultry should be transported for no more than 6 hours, with 12 hours the maximum total period of feed deprivation. 

According to EFSA, feed withdrawal on the farm of origin should be avoided. It says there is no scientific evidence of any welfare benefit of fasting domestic birds prior to transportation.

EFSA is recommending that these conditions apply to the whole period during which the birds are in the containers — and not just the transportation time. Including the time on farm feed withdrawal, EFSA is proposing a maximum transport period of 12 hours for domestic poultry.

Latest guidance on improving welfare of day-old chicks

While the overwhelming majority of domestic poultry are transported within the EU by road, day-old chicks are sometimes carried by air. 

As for older poultry, EFSA is recommending more space for chicks, lower temperatures, and reduced traveling times than under the current regulations. 

Transporting fertilized eggs for hatching on the farm is an option that would avoid adverse welfare consequences, the agency suggests.

However, the more common practice is to transport hatched day-old chicks. They should be kept at 30degC or above. 

Furthermore, EFSA recommends the maximum time before first access to feed and water is no more than 48 hours. This period starts when the first chick hatches in the hatchery, through holding, loading, transport, and unloading to when the last chick in the consignment has access to feed and water. 

Next week, EFSA will be presenting these recommendations publicly for the first time.

Earlier this month, the agency announced that it had appointed a new Chief Scientist.

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