The question of animal welfare shot straight into consumer awareness with the recent massive dioxin-contaminated egg scandal in Germany. Now, Germany's Agricultural Minister, Ilse Aigner (CSU), has put the question squarely on the political table with the observation to Die Welt: "We must discuss what consumers expect and what best serves nature and the welfare of the animals." She proposes no less than a "Charter for Agriculture and Consumers," and an end to practices such as caging of laying chickens, branding of horses and cattle, and castration of piglets without anesthesia.Germany has for years given consumers perfect transparency regarding the conditions under which the eggs in the supermarket were raised: by law, each egg must be stamped with a code identifying it as from hens that are caged, barn-held, freelanders, or organically raised. After dioxin detected in eggs was traced back to contamination in a processed oil added to chicken feed, almost a thousand chicken farms were closed to prevent further exposure among consumers while investigation continued. The scandal drove the price of organic eggs in Berlin to two or three times normal, at 0.50€ (US$0.67) for a single egg.
The economic disadvantage has spurred the German Farmers' Association to protest that if they are forced to unilaterally upgrade to standards that ban cages, chicken farming and egg production will relocate. They argue that this does not serve animal welfare because standards for chickens outside of Germany are worse than current conditions on German farms.
Associations backing branding have declared the third-degree burns are like a designer label, and cannot be substituted by microchips. "A Trakehner without the traditional elk horns is like a Mercedes without a star on its grill," is how Hans-Michael Goldmann (FDP), Congressman from Niedersachsen, describes the Trakehner Association's position. Trakehner's are a famous breed of riding horse originally developed in what was then East Prussia.
Representatives of Germany's Green Party have shot from the opposite direction: Aigner's plans do too little. They cite the development of fowl with breasts so heavy they lose the ability to stand, rotting in the ammoniacal excrement on the floor, and the docking of pig tails, as examples of priorities for regulation.
The argument for animal welfare can only be won if the consumer wishes to pay to ensure their food is raised in harmony with nature, or if regulators deem that the market has failed to acknowledge the risks of cheap food. The economic disadvantage to farmers can only be allayed when consumer demand makes providing food that respects animal welfare profitable, or when a level playing field is achieved in global regulations.
Neither of these scenarios can happen without debate, especially the free-market preferred option: if consumers can easily ignore the ugly facts of food production, we will. Modern farming is proof of that.