What does IKEA have to do with animal welfare? Interview with Priya Motupalli

Priya Motupalli, Global Sustainable Sourcing Specialist sure is a cool title for an animal welfare scientist. Tell us what you do at IKEA Food Services AB!

Thanks!  It’s a mouthful, but it’s an incredible position where I get to place animal welfare at the heart of our vision for more sustainable agriculture.  My role is to develop and support the implementation of our sustainable sourcing strategy for the animal products in our range across all of the 52 markets we operate in.

This strategy consists of a set of programmes which covers animal welfare, environmental impact, and public health issues at the farm level.  The first of these species-specific programmes, the better chicken programme, was launched publicly in the beginning of this year.

Priya with chicken

What are the principles you apply to your work?

The mission of IKEA is to create a better everyday life for the many people.  I take this to heart in my own work—I’m not interested in good animal welfare or sustainable food production getting stuck in a niche market where only a small segment of the population benefits or has access to it.  My goal is to consistently find a place for animal welfare as a core tenant of more sustainable food systems.  This isn’t simple, as there are documented trade-offs—so I try and focus how animal welfare can connect to environmental or social issues to move the conversation forward, rather than not moving at all.

We also have something called the 7 Food Principles which set the general business direction at IKEA Food—although there is a principle around animal welfare, my favourite one is actually “food is pleasure.”  Consumers are so overloaded now with information on the dos/don’ts of sustainable consumption!  I think part of our job is to ensure that they can pick up something in the Swedish food market, or dine in the Restaurant, or grab something in the bistro and simply feel good about it, without having to panic about where it was sourced, or what the working conditions were like, or how the animals were raised, etc.  Food is such an intimate, enjoyable part of our lives—and making more sustainable or healthier choices shouldn’t be a barrier to this enjoyment!

Of course, providing this experience for our customers is a journey and there is a great saying by our founder, Ingvar Kamprad that “most things remain to be done.”

In which way does animal welfare science get into your job? Do you use actual research data or methods?

Animal welfare science is a critical part of the job—and one of the main reasons I was hired!  Current research forms the backbone of any animal welfare sourcing criteria we create.  However, as the science only tells you what you can do, not necessarily what you should do, our sourcing criteria is also a product of country specific legislation, feedback from NGOs and suppliers, and customer desires.

In addition, data collection and the use of this data to improve animal welfare over time is an integral part of our better chicken programme, and will form an integral part of our other species-specific programmes as well.  Alongside any input criteria we set, we have also identified key welfare outcomes that we will measure with the help of our suppliers and retail partners.  These welfare outcome measures will provide objective information on the quality of life for animals’ specific to our supply chain. In time, we can use this information to establish key areas of improvement and apply targeted interventions.

Our first data-set related to the better chicken programme came in recently and I’m keen to get it to start working for us!

If you are interested in how IKEA works with sustainability in general: https://www.ikea.com/gb/en/this-is-ikea/people-planet/

If you want to learn more about IKEA’s view on animal welfare: https://www.ikea.com/gb/en/doc/general-document/ikea-read-more-about-ikeas-view-on-animal-welfare__1364641255476.pdf

Follow Priya on twitter:@drpriyamots

Coverage of Better Chicken: http://5mpoultry.uberflip.com/i/976632-poultry-digital-may-2018/15?m4=

More broiler catching research

In the beginning of August, I posted about a study with Brazilian broiler catchers. One of the observations in this study was that catchers were aware that catching broilers by their legs was worse for welfare. (On the poster this is expressed as “catching by the back is better”; you can see that if you enlarge the photo).

Interestingly, this view by the catchers is confirmed by  a recently published study from Norway in which two catching methods were compared in two flocks.  Four professional catchers caught a total of 3951 birds and either caught the birds under the abdomen and carried them upright, or by the two legs carrying them upside down. Capturing under the abdomen and carrying upside down resulted in faster loading into crates, more equal and lower crate density and also tended to reduce the number of wing fractures. The study by Kittelsen et al was just published in the journal Animals.

Cultural differences of ethological relevance

(There was dancing at the congress dinner. That’s an unwritten ISAE rule and something I fully support. But it left less time for writing, so this morning I will present a shorter reflection rather than a full resume of the 3rd conference day)

This post is not about how applied ethologists differ depending on where they come from or where they work. They don’t, actually, or at least not much, not in a significant way that I have been able to observe during my 25 years as an ISAE member. The kind of work they do may differ, because that’s in part determined by the local context in which they work. Some aspects of animal use differ indeed very little: laboratory animals are housed and used in similar ways across the world and lameness scoring is unfortunately needed for dairy cows most everywhere. But sometimes differences are huge because the way certain practices work is so different.

Yesterday presented two examples from the area of animal production. The photo below shows Victor Abreu de Lima from São Paulo, Brasil and his poster on broiler catchers and their attitudes to animal welfare.


Catching broilers at the farm to ship them for slaughter used to be something you got anybody who needed to earn some extra money in to do. When I was a teenager, this was something a local football team could get money for a training camp doing. Obviously, having teenagers who know nothing about chickens and who just want to get out of the dark smelly dusty chicken house as quickly as possible isn’t great for animal welfare, This is at least one of the drivers for replacing manual catching with automatic. But in Brazil the development has gone the other way, and catchers are now professionals who – at least in the case of the company Victor and his colleagues work with – have a proper work contract and are trained in how to perform their task. And as you can see from the poster, they know and have a lot to say about the welfare of broilers on the farm and during catching. Whether it’s better for a chicken to be caught by a machine or by a professional handler has not been studied, but it seems quite obvious that professional handlers with this kind of insight makes for better animal welfare than unprepared occasional workers!

The next photo shows Marina von Keyserlingk from British Columbia, Canada presenting work by Jane Stojkov on whether dairy cows sent for auction are actually fit for transport. (The answer is that far too many of them aren’t). This question surprised me, as the only auctions for dairy cows I have experienced are those where a farmer sells their surplus heifers to a farmer who is expanding or improving their herd. But the auction pictured on the photo is one for culled dairy cows intended for slaughter, because that is the route between the dairy farm and the slaughter house in Canada today. And since many cows are culled because of health issues, it is a real problem for animal welfare that these cows need to go through an extra round of transport, housing and showing before they are slaughtered.


School holiday animal welfare scientists

Every summer, 16 high school students participating in Universidade Júnior at the University of Porto have the opportunity to learn about animal behaviour and welfare – and practice some of their new knowledge in measuring behaviour and welfare. In the Laboratory Animal Science group at i3S – Institute for Research and Innovation in Health, we receive two groups of 8 students who spend a week each with us. Of course, we teach them a lot of theory – we’re scientists after all! – but we try to do it in as playful a way as possible. And there’s plenty of animals.


There are direct behaviour observations of zebrafish habitat preference, and observations from video recordings of the behaviour of mice and rats during the light and dark period.


There is a visit to a dairy farm, where the students perform a simplified WelfareQuality assessment and also potentially get some close-up contact with cows.



And there is a demonstration of dog training as well as a chance to clicker train one’s colleagues.

For our research group, these are two intense but also very rewarding weeks. It is fantastic to be able to share our knowledge and passion for research into animal behaviour and welfare with 16- and 17-year olds who are as interested in animals as we are. We have been doing this since 2014, and of course we hope that some day we will meet a new colleague who once did Universidade Júnior with us!

Thanks to Sara Capas, Andreia Costa, Ana Maria Valentim and Gabriela Morello for the photos.

Agent-based modelling in animal research – interview with Iris Boumans and Eddie Bokkers

Congratulations Iris Boumans and Eddie Bokkers to the publication of two papers in Physiology and Behaviour! These papers present work using a relatively new behaviour research approach. What is Agent-Based Modelling and how is it useful in the study of farm animal behaviour?

Agent-based modelling is a computer simulation method in which agents (representing pigs in our case) are individually programmed to have their own goals and can make their own decisions, within the limits of certain rules. Especially interesting in these simulation is the interaction between agents and the environment, which can affect the decisions agents make. In this way behaviour can emerge that was not programmed on forehand. Due to conflicts at a feeding place, for example, pigs can adapt their feeding behaviour and aggressive interactions might occur. Or a stimulus-poor environment can trigger redirected behaviour in an individual, such as tail biting, which can develop into a large scale tail biting outbreak in a group. These kind of simulations provide us more insight in the underlying mechanisms of pig behaviours, the effect of the environment and pig characteristics on this behaviour, and how this affect the performance and welfare of pigs. This can be very useful in the study of farm animal behaviour to understand how housing and management conditions affect animals and to learn how we can use behaviour as indicator for performance and animal welfare. The advantage of using simulation models such as we did is that many variations of situations can be explored without the need of doing animal experiments.

Feeding_motivation_pigs_140106 view- groot4

In your first paper (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2018.04.032), you present the development of the model, and in the second paper (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2018.03.030) you use it to study feeding patterns, social interactions and growth in pigs. Tell us more about what you actually did and what you found!

Large variation in feeding behaviour can be observed among pigs: some have large meals where others ‘nibble’ more, some eat fast where others eat slow, and some eat more in the morning where others eat more in the afternoon. What is causing this variation, and what can it tell about the performance of the animals? The aim of our studies was to understand this variation in feeding behaviour of pigs and the implications of these various feeding patterns for their productivity and welfare. In the first paper we explain how we developed an agent-based model to understand the mechanisms underlying feeding and social interaction behaviour. We used the model to explore the complex interaction between physiological processes (metabolic, hormonal and growth processes) and the social context (social facilitation, competition and behavioural strategies). We found that high levels of competition can be recognised by changing meal-based patterns (e.g. meal frequency), which can either increase or decrease due to varying behavioural strategies of pigs (approach or avoid). Especially increased meal frequency was associated with increased aggression, although both an increased and decreased meal frequency caused problems, such as a reduced feed intake and reduced growth. The group size at which competition levels reduced productivity and welfare could be predicted from the average daily feeding time of pigs. In the second paper we further explored the variation in feeding, social interaction and growth patterns in pigs. In literature, studies found contradicting results on relations between dominance rank of pigs, feeding types (e.g. meal eaters vs. nibblers) and growth patterns. These contradictions can be explained by variation in pig characteristics, such as growth potential and coping style. Model results showed that variation in characteristics among group-housed pigs can benefit animal welfare by reducing aggression at group level, but can also make some pigs more susceptible to competition, such as low-ranking pigs and pigs with a passive coping style. Pigs that are socially constrained in a competitive situation can be identified by a changed 24 hour feeding pattern with reduced feed intake in the morning.

This is quite a new approach, and so knowledge is still rather limited. Is it possible to say something already about the potential practical applications of this work? What is needed before this research can be put to practical use?

Our work shows that feeding patterns can tell us much more about pig welfare and productivity then was thought so far. With currently ongoing technological developments in pig farming, such as automatic feeders and individual recognition, pig behaviours can be monitored individually and real-time on farms. Recognising behavioural signals, preferably at an early stage, can help to prevent problems and improve productivity, health and welfare in pigs. At present, however, interpretation of these behaviours and early detection of deviating behavioural patterns is still challenging due to the large variation within and among individuals. With our model we gained a deeper understanding of variation in feeding behaviour and found feeding patterns that can serve as indicators for reduced growth, aggression and social constraints. We learned, for example, that it is important for these indicators to analyse patterns on individual level and within 24 hours, instead of at group level and daily averages as is currently common. Furthermore, we should not only look at one component of a behaviour, such as feed intake, but also at other components of feeding behaviour, such as feeding time, meal frequency and feeding rate. Changes in feeding behaviour have been associated with several welfare issues, such as health problems and tail biting behaviour. For future studies, it would be interesting to study the relation between feeding patterns.