It’s just a matter of time before European-style animal welfare comes to the U.S., and that will threaten the freedom and discretion that livestock producers have in caring for their animals.

According to Wesley Jamison, assistant professor in the Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division at Wochester (Mass.) Polytechnic Institute, the U.S. generally lags 20 years behind the animal welfare trends in Europe. Given the entrenched nature of animal welfare in Europe today, the 20-year clock has already started ticking.

In Europe, every aspect of a farm animal’s life – from birth through slaughter – is regulated and codified, Jamison told veterinarians attending the recent Minnesota Dairy Health Conference in St. Paul. For instance, there must be water on the trucks that transport animals to slaughter.

“In Switzerland, it is now legislative policy that you must protect the ‘dignity’ of the animal,” he says. “This is what you are going to have to face in the future – increasingly subjective parameters as to how an animal should be treated.”

Jamison said Europe is a “harbinger” of things to come in this country. Already, the following trends are in place:

  • Fewer and fewer Americans live on farms or have relatives who live on farms.
  • We remain an affluent society, and affluent societies don’t worry about food cost or what would happen to food cost if farms had to face additional regulatory burdens.
  • An aging Baby Boomer population will turn to their pets for emotional attachment now that their children have moved out of their households.

If the U.S. resists stricter regulation, then the regulations may be forced upon us by the European countries as a defacto trade barrier that must be overcome if we want to ship our products there, Jamison said.

Europeans look at animal welfare differently than we do, Jamison said. In Europe, farm animals are “sentient” beings that have feelings. In the U.S., they are “units of production.” U.S. producers have the belief that healthy, happy animals produce more. Europeans believe the opposite –– that a high-producing animal is under stress. They determine that the animal is in a state of well-being through various physiological measures.

In order to reverse or offset these trends, U.S. producers must find ways to promote their current husbandry practices to the American public. Some producers are doing their part by hosting farm tours.