Improving standards on livestock living conditions is becoming a global trend, but Japan is lagging in efforts to advance the concept of farm animal welfare given little-to-no consideration by producers and consumers alike.

In June, Japan's farm ministry belatedly drew up a set of non-binding guidelines from this perspective. But it is unclear if they will be observed widely in the country's livestock industry where production efficiency is generally prioritized.

The idea of improving animal living conditions originated in Europe and consists of "five freedoms" that should be guaranteed in best-practice treatment.

They are freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury or disease; freedom to express normal behavior; and freedom from fear and distress.

Better efficiency means lower cost, and with price consciousness the dominant driver of the Japanese consumer, there is little motivation for producers to take up practices that benefit animals.

While moves to mandate rules for farm animal welfare advance in Europe, awareness of its importance is slowly taking root among pet business operators, zoos and others in Japan.

In livestock and poultry farming, Yasuhiro Matsuzaki is one producer who is leading the way.

The 51-year-old oversees 3,000 egg-laying hens in a poultry house northeast of Tokyo. Half of the property has space for hens to roam freely, and perches are also provided in the enclosure.

The eggs are said to be less prone to disease and richer in taste due to the amount of exercise the hens are allowed, but a half-dozen pack does cost more than battery hen-laid eggs.

Matsuzaki, who keeps his farm in Ishioka, Ibaraki Prefecture, referred to difficulty seeking both profitability and animal welfare.

"If we increase the number of birds in order to increase profits, it will affect sanitation and pose challenges to (the birds') health, which is contrary to animal welfare," he said.

Photo taken Sept. 12, 2023, shows Yasuhiro Matsuzaki in his chicken coop, where he raises hens in consideration of animal welfare, in Ishioka, Ibaraki Prefecture. (Kyodo)

According to Kenichi Takeda, an associate professor of animal behavior at the Faculty of Agriculture of Shinshu University, it is common to raise large numbers of livestock in cramped spaces in Japan. This is part of the reason why meat and dairy products are able to be sold at relatively low prices.

While hygiene and quality of nutrition are important to producing quality animal products, giving freedom of movement increases costs due to the need to renovate existing facilities. It also reduces production efficiency.

There is, therefore, strong resistance because "it does not match the reality of Japan's small land area" in running livestock businesses, an industry official said.

Some people question the value of engaging in a moral discussion about the living conditions of livestock animals that are ultimately bound for the dinner plate, reflecting a general apathy in the wider Japanese population.

In 2022, former Japanese farm minister Takamori Yoshikawa was sentenced to two years and six months in prison, suspended for four years, for receiving bribes from an egg production company that asked him to oppose international animal welfare standards.

Previously, the Japanese government did not get involved in establishing animal welfare rules, instead leaving it up to industry groups to write their own.

But as interest in animal welfare has grown overseas in recent years, evidenced by the incorporation of initiatives for assessing food safety and corporate rating evaluations for investors, Takeda of Shinshu University said major food processing companies and other concerns called on the government to establish animal welfare guidelines.

The guidelines prepared by the farm ministry clearly stipulate methods of rearing livestock that take into account the freedom of behavior for each type of animal.

In a 2021 study by Takeda, 25 percent of the consumers surveyed said they had heard the term animal welfare, while some 20 percent said they consider the environment in which animals are reared when choosing livestock products. But the jury is still out.

"At present, livestock farmers who promote animal welfare lose out because consumers prioritize low prices," Takeda said. "Lowering prices through business subsidies and increasing the number of consumers who value animal welfare will be the key to making the practice widespread in Japan."

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