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EFSA concludes conventional rabbit cages have worst welfare score

Photo credit: ©Essere Animali

Today the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has published three scientific opinions on the welfare of rabbits kept in the EU for meat consumption. The conclusions show the need for the European Commission to use this scientific evidence to enact long overdue legislation for rabbits and end caged systems. At the same time, the opinions demonstrate the urgent need for better training of staff during stunning and slaughter of rabbits.  

Rabbits are the second most farmed species in the EU in terms of numbers, but there is no species-specific legislation protecting their welfare in the EU. EFSA assessed and compared the welfare of rabbits in different production systems – organic, outdoor, floor pens, elevated pens, enriched cages and conventional cages – and concluded that conventional cages have the worst overall welfare impact score. The overall welfare impact scores suggest that animal welfare in organic systems, on the other hand, is generally good. EFSA’s Opinion includes recommendations to improve the welfare of these animals in all the systems currently available in the EU. To facilitate the assessment of the welfare of rabbits kept in different systems it also recommends standardizing the use of validated welfare assessment protocols suitable for on-farm use throughout the EU. 

Secondly, in response to two mandates, one from the European Parliament and one from the European Commission, EFSA also assessed the welfare problems like to occur in rabbits during slaughter and killing operations. In its Scientific Opinion ‘Stunning methods and slaughter of rabbits for human consumption’, the Authority identified ten welfare consequences resulting from 32 hazards that rabbits can be exposed to before and during slaughter (i.e. during pre-stunning, stunning and bleeding). These are consciousness, not being dead, thermal stress, prolonged thirst, prolonged hunger, restriction of movements, pain, fear, distress, and respiratory distress. 25 out of 32 of the hazards originated from staff, with most being attributed either to a lack of appropriate skills or to fatigue. 

EFSA concluded that the preparedness and performance of staff also plays a crucial role in the case of on‐farm killing for purposes other than slaughter, such as disease control operations, and assessed this scenario in another dedicated Scientific Opinion. It identified 14 hazards which result in five welfare consequences: not being dead, consciousness, pain, fear and distress. Again, the staff were identified as the origin for all the hazards, either due to a lack of skills needed or due to the high kill rate that characterizes these operations and results in fatigue. 

For both these opinions EFSA linked the hazards, welfare consequences, animal-based measures, origins and preventive and corrective measures, and also proposed mitigation measures to minimize welfare consequences. In assessing preventive measures, the crucial role played by the staff was also acknowledged.

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