It attracted little attention, but a recent Productivity Commission report contained a damning indictment of the way Australia establishes animal welfare laws in agriculture. The commission’s Regulation of Australian Agriculture devotes a chapter to how animal welfare legislation is made in Australia, and it doesn’t make for comforting reading.

Why are a bunch of economists interested in animal welfare? For a start, any regulation adds to the cost of doing business. But the PC also believes there is an intangible, but very real, benefit to the community from knowing that the animals they consume have been treated humanely, which offsets the cost of regulation. In the PC’s eyes, animal welfare is about balancing the benefits to the wider community and the costs to industry of standards for the treatment of animals.

This evades a more fundamental ethical issue of the treatment of animals, by placing the entire issue in an economic framework — but to do otherwise would take the subject out of the PC’s frame of reference.

The PC sees several problems with the current means of establishing animal welfare laws. One is that previous efforts to establish a uniform national set of minimum standards have failed; another is that the Abbott government abandoned the issue altogether in 2013, meaning there’s been no national leadership since then. But the two big problems are that industry plays too great a role in determining animal welfare standards, and there’s a lack of hard evidence informing them.

Standards for different agricultural industries are set by officials of agriculture departments reporting to agriculture ministers, and they’re advised by Animal Health Australia (except for livestock-slaughtering establishments, which are the subject of a different process), a non-profit company run by agriculture departments and livestock industry associations, which supposedly consults with “other stakeholders”. The PC devotes many pages to detailing concerns about the dominance of industry in the standard-setting process. “Despite changes to the process, concerns continue to be raised about its independence and transparency,” it says, and goes into detail about standards for poultry and religious slaughter. The poultry standards development process is dominated, it says, by industry groups with very little representation from animal welfare groups. And the omission of religious slaughtering from standards draws a sharp rebuke. 

“The Commission sees no legitimate reason for unstunned (religious) slaughter to be excluded from the standards and guidelines development process. Also, the rationale for the exemption is questionable. The animal welfare risks associated with unstunned slaughter … demonstrate that it is a matter that should be on the table for public discussion.”

The commission also notes that the process that examined the issue of mulesing, and whether pain relief should be required for the mulesing of sheep (which many wool growers currently don’t bother with), concluded that the imposition of a total cost of $33 million over 10 years on the wool industry, or 45 cents per sheep, was too high — a conclusion only understandable given the process was dominated by livestock associations and agriculture departments.

[Yes, I hate the Cup — and for damn good reason]

The commission also struggled to find the use of hard evidence in standards development, citing, among others, an example of a biased paper used to determine standards for bobby calves (the calves born so that cows will continue to produce milk; they are slaughtered a few days after birth). Nor is there much effort made to establish community views about animal welfare.

Whereas in Europe regular polling is used to determine community attitudes, here the primary means of input for the community is via the arcane Regulation Impact Statement process for individuals standards. Even key agricultural industry groups like the National Farmers’ Federation believe there should be more work done to understand community views, if only to avoid what the industry sees an kneejerk, emotive responses occasioned by programs like Four Corners.

To address both the bias inherent in the current system and the lack of empirical data in the development of standards, the commission wants an independent Commonwealth body not merely to conduct animal welfare research, but to set standards as well. It would be called the Australian Commission for Animal Welfare and be composed of representatives from livestock industry, animal welfare and veterinary science groups and legal and ethical groups. The idea isn’t a new one; Labor proposed it shortly before losing government, and the Greens have tried to introduce it via a private member’s bill.

Predictably, the agricultural industry opposes the idea of an independent body, including Animal Health Australia; a new body, they claim, would lead to additional red tape and “not produce effective outcomes”. That appears to confirm the commissions’s concerns about the current process: industry likes it just fine the way it is, because they get to control it.