The dynamics of sheep welfare in Norway – between idealised images and practical realities

Virginie Amilien & Unni Kjaernes (2017)

British Food Journal, 119(4), p. 952-966

Purpose: This paper is based on three social scientific studies of animal welfare and local food products in Norway, of which two focused on sheep in particular. It addresses the widespread belief that Norwegian sheep farming is “the best” but is confronted with a meat industry that emphasises economic efficiency. A few years after a new Norwegian law on animal welfare acknowledged animals as sentient beings came into force in 2010 (LOVdata, 2009), the purpose of this paper is to better understand ongoing debates on the welfare of sheep by exploring how sheep welfare is understood and regulated in Norway.

Design/methodology/approach: The theoretical framework draws on convention theory, especially referring to the four “possible worlds of production” (Salais/Storper 1993). The authors argue that animal welfare may be analysed in parallel to product quality, focusing on three major perspectives of sheep welfare: animal treatment, product quality, and an abstract conceptualisation in public discourse. The empirical analysis is based on interviews with key players in the sector and central documents.

Findings: Convention theory points to several general difficulties in reaching an agreement on what is “good quality” and welfare. First, the authors find difficulty in how to implement new regulatory conceptualisations with dominant ways of understanding welfare within the industry. Second, the idealised images of sheep welfare of an immaterial possible world dominating public discourse have very little interaction with the real world of farms and abattoirs.

Originality/value: This paper suggests that rather than addressing and handling the potential tension between the legal recognition of animal as sentient being and the economic demands of the industry, key actors keep the potentially conflicting understandings apart in different “worlds of production” (Salais/Storper 1993). Nevertheless, the authors observe that interactions between possible worlds, as well as translation from one possible world to another, not only could be promising but would be fundamental to concretise improvements in the real world.

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