Turkey Welfare - Satisfying Wants and Needs

There is a need to balance the wants of the consumer with those of the producer, not forgetting those of the turkey, said poultry veterinarian, Stephen Lister of Crowshall Veterinary Services. He was speaking at the 3rd Turkey Science and Production Conference at Macclesfield, UK, last month, writes Jackie Linden, editor of ThePoultrySite.
calendar icon 12 May 2009
clock icon 5 minute read

"Animal welfare has historically been a quirky and very British disease," said Stephen Lister in the introduction to his paper on welfare issues in turkeys.

"In recent years, consumer pressure and various interest groups have endeavoured to push the subject further into the public consciousness, both in the UK and overseas," he continued.

The aim of his paper, he said, was to discuss some aspects that might help to satisfy consumers, producers and the turkeys themselves.

Mr Lister explained that consumers' perceptions and expectations differ, not least depending on exactly what question is asked. Most respondents will say that they are concerned about animal welfare and that their sources of information – primarily welfare organisations and the media – are inadequate. A 2005 EU survey highlighted that they wanted more easily understandable information on product labels.

Two positive points emerged from the EU survey: consumers expect the same standards of welfare from imported products as those produced locally, and they associate higher welfare with better animal health and food safety/standards.

Another more recent survey in the UK in 2007 confirmed the need for more information of production systems although this was not necessarily reflected in buying patterns. There is some evidence that UK consumers are more aware of how their food is produced following strong media publicity, and also growing 'premiumisation', i.e. opting for higher quality/better welfare products – at least, until the current recession started. Around ten per cent of those surveyed said they only buy higher welfare foods.

Defining Welfare

There are many definitions of animal welfare, and Mr Lister began with the simplest, namely, 'Animal welfare relates to both the physical health and mental well-being of the animal.'

The UK's Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) was set up in 1979 as an independent group to advise the government on all aspects of animal welfare from the farm, to market, transport and the slaughterhouse. FAWC developed the Five Freedoms:

  1. freedom from hunger and thirst
  2. freedom from discomfort
  3. freedom from pain, injury and disease
  4. freedom from fear and distress, and
  5. freedom to express normal behaviour.

These may not be perfect and they are open to differences in interpretation but, as Mr Lister said, "They remain a yardstick against which to monitor systems and procedures".


In the UK, many of the concepts have become incorporated in legislation: Animal Welfare Act 2006; Welfare of Animals (Transport) Order 2006; Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) 1995; and Welfare of Farmed Animals Regulations 2007.

The most important milestones in assessing welfare issues for turkeys in recent years were published in 1995 in FAWC Report on the Welfare of Turkeys and in the EU in Recommendations concerning turkeys produced for the Standing Committee of the European Convention for the protection of animals kept for farming purposes, which was adopted in 2001.

Many of the factors relating to the environment, management and husbandry are likely to be covered by the long overdue update of the DEFRA Codes of Recommendations for the Welfare of Livestock: Turkeys, said Mr Lister. Other aspects, for example stocking rates, light intensity, and beak trimming, may require more consideration. Mr Lister hopes these will address welfare concerns and at the same time, be based on sounds science and offer practical and realistic solutions.

Delivering Higher Welfare Standards

Mr Lister reminded the audience that the aim should be for a balance between the producers who must continue to use best practice at each stage of the process, the turkey that needs to be suited to the conditions and the consumer, whose expectations must be realistic.

In the UK, standards were set by farm assurance programmes such as the Quality British Turkeys (QBT) system and RSPCA Freedom Foods system, which set standards against which the farms are independently assessed. This type of scheme is gaining popularity and in February 2009, a new turkey module was launched by Globalgap, a private sector body that sets up voluntary standards for the certification of a range of agricultural products around the world.

These systems tend to focus on welfare inputs (such as a suitable environment, provision of feed and water etc) but, as Mr Lister pointed out, it would be preferable to assess welfare in terms of its output – for example, growth rate, feed efficiency or mortality. These measure give a good indication of how the turkey is coping with its environment.

Measures are still to be developed to measure the bird's quality of life and this is likely to be problematic, based on experience with other farm animals. For turkeys, these measures may include feather condition and pododermatitis (foot pad dermatitis).

Mr Lister concluded his presentation by addressing the important question of who pays for high welfare standards. "It is clear that the consumer must pay," he said.

Beyond the legal minimum standards, he sees the best option for producers to establish brand standards and assurance schemes that provide consumers with a guaranteed value for money, while at the same time extending the assurance to cover the welfare provenance of their food.

Further Reading

- For further information on 3rd Turkey Science and Production Conference, please contact its organiser, Dr James Bentley ([email protected]).

May 2009
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