Complex path ahead for animal pain control

Pain mitigation for livestock undergoing painful procedures: Necessary? Practical? Economical? Productive? Demanded by consumers? A ploy for product differentiation?

The answer to the first question is yes, and the various livestock codes of practice show the industry knows it.

The codes for beef cattle, dairy cattle, pigs and other livestock contain various requirements designed to mitigate pain when animals undergo certain procedures.

Consumers also agree upon the necessity of pain mitigation for animals that provide meat for the table and the demand for improved animal welfare continues to grow.

But definitive answers to the other questions are murky.

Consumers and retailers do not consider the practicality or economical impact of providing pain relief to a large number of animals. Producers don’t have that luxury.

Having acknowledged that pain mitigation for animals is needed, they still have to figure out how and when to apply the medication, in what form and at what cost in terms of product, equipment and labour.

They must also attempt to determine if application of pain relief results in higher productivity or reduced illness or a higher price when the animals are sold.

Research indicates the use of pain mitigation has a positive impact on productivity and reduces susceptibility to illness, but the degree depends on the animal, the procedure, the timing, the drug, the environment and other variables.

Those variables make the productivity and economics questions difficult to answer.

As for customer demand, survey after survey shows that when asked, consumers say they are willing to pay more for meat guaranteed to have come from livestock with high animal welfare standards, including use of pain mitigation when necessary.

Yet survey after survey shows only the committed and affluent few will actually do so at the meat counter.

In terms of product differentiation, a certain few food chains have sought to capitalize on claims of superior animal welfare, some with mixed results. Did they respond to consumer demands, attempt to carve out a certain market, or both?

So, the facts are thus: livestock producers agree pain mitigation is the right thing to do and they want to do it. Consumers agree pain mitigation is the right thing to do and they want it done. There is a cost to be borne, by some or by all.

The way forward is research to better understand animals’ pain and its mitigation, to find, test and register effective anesthetics and analgesics, to figure out best dosages and delivery methods, to find practical ways of administration and to lower costs for livestock producers and by extension, consumers.

It is a tall order. But work is underway at federal and provincial research centres and universities, using funds from industry groups and the public.

It’s important that this work continue, for the benefit of livestock and the protection of social licence in food production.

Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod, D’Arce McMillan and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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