As it can mean different things to different parties, objective principles like the so-called five freedoms can provide a good basis for discussion on what constitutes good animal welfare.

The five freedoms were developed by the Farm Animal Welfare Council of the UK in 1979 in response to a report into the welfare of farmed animals commissioned by the UK government.

Over the years, they have been adopted by many animal organizations, including the World Organization for Animal Health and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, as guiding principles into what constitutes good welfare. In addition, many welfare audit organizations are using these principles as a reference for the development of their assessment tools for welfare on farms.

The five freedoms are:

  • Freedom from hunger and thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor

  • Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area

  • Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment

  • Freedom to express normal behavior by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind

  • Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering

Laws and regulations

Regulation regarding livestock animal welfare exists at the state and federal level. Federal laws regarding welfare of livestock is limited to the transport and slaughter of animals at this time.


State laws protect animals including livestock from gross neglect and intentional harm – and lately have been more specific about which industry standards do not constitute good animal welfare and are no longer allowed.

Federal laws

  • Twenty-eight-hour Law (Title 49 § 80502): Animals may not be confined for interstate movement in a vehicle or vessel for more than 28 consecutive hours without unloading the animals for feeding, water and rest.

  • Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (Title 7 § 1901 et seq): States that livestock must be slaughtered in a humane manner to prevent needless suffering; the law encourages research methods on humane methods of slaughter, assures the exemptions covering religious or ritual slaughter and covers investigation into the care of non-ambulatory livestock.

State laws

State laws on animal cruelty typically do not apply to customary and normal veterinary and agricultural husbandry practices such as dehorning, castration or tail docking, but more and more exceptions exist: California, for example, has a law against tail docking in dairy cattle – so it is important to be familiar with your state laws.

The National Agricultural Law Center webpage offers an interactive map that will let you look up regulations in your home state (The National Agricultural Law Center: States' farm animal confinement statutes).

Most of these regulations apply to calves raised for veal, pregnant pigs and caged poultry. Another example from California: The state passed Proposition 2, which requires that calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens and pregnant pigs be confined only in ways that allow these animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely.

There have been various unsuccessful attempts in Congress to pass similar legislation regarding the welfare of livestock. The latest was the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act (H.R. 4733) in 2010.

This law would have prohibited a federal agency from purchasing any food product derived from a pig during pregnancy, a calf raised for veal or an egg-laying hen used or intended for use in food production unless that animal was provided adequate space to stand up, lie down, turn around freely and fully extend all limbs.

Animal welfare audits and certification programs

Voluntary science-based animal care assessments and audits have been developed in the major livestock industries in response to consumer concerns that animals being raised for food production are treated inhumanely. These audits can also help a farm meet its goal of providing best welfare and identify areas for improvement.

  • First-party certifications are issued by the manufacturer without independent review.

  • Second-party certifications are issued by industry, trade or membership associations; the standards are developed and verified by representatives of the industry.

  • Third-party certifications are truly independent of the product they certify and the manufacturers and retailers of the product. The decision-makers within these organizations do not have ties to the industry.

Assessments focus on written protocols that should be in place on the farm regarding animal welfare as well as on outcomes, meaning they will look at the animals on the farm to assess whether they meet criteria for good welfare.

Once approved, farms can take advantage of the auditing organization’s seal to market their products.

Some examples for third-party welfare audits for beef cattle are “Certified Humane Raised and Handled”, American Humane Certified or Food Alliance Certified, but this list is by no means complete.

Visiting the sites will give an idea on the extent and depth of an audit. The decision to participate in a specific welfare audit program could be influenced by various factors:

  • Current marketing opportunities require a specific welfare audit.

  • The credentials of the committee members who developed the program are reputable, and participation will enhance animal health and welfare; a reputable panel consists of animal scientists or veterinarians with expertise in animal welfare, nutrition and herd health.

  • The standards are appropriate for the production system in place or desired; for example, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service offers auditing and accreditation for a grass-fed program for producers who market 49 cattle or less each year – clearly only suitable for small producers.

  • The certification provides an advantage for existing or future marketing channels; certification may offer opportunities to sell to buyers that have previously not been considered. end mark
Gabriele Maier
  • Gabriele Maier

  • Resident Veterinarian
  • UC Davis Livestock Herd Health and Reproduction Service
  • UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine
  • Email Gabriele Maier