AgriThinking: Navigating the maze of laws on animal welfare in agribusiness research

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This article was written by Madeline Howard, Shareen Dhillon and Scott Bouvier

Research in animal-based agricultural sectors is critical to improve productivity growth, sustainability and resilience of those sectors as well as the welfare of animals.

However, the law on animal research in Australia is complex, creating a significant compliance challenge for organisations which wish to identify, trial and implement new practices and techniques. This alert provides guidance to help businesses consider whether they are responsible for complying with these laws and offers practical tips to support compliance.

The legal landscape

Each State and Territory has its own laws which regulate animal welfare and the care and use of animals for research purposes. The main laws are described in a table below.

The content and structure of these laws vary significantly, however, there are some commonalities. Each State and Territory requires animal researchers to receive some form of licence, approval, or registration before undertaking any animal research. In most cases, the research must be considered by an animal ethics committee to receive approval.

The scope of activities regulated as "animal research" depends on the State or Territory, but generally the concept is defined broadly with the potential to encompass a wide variety of practices and activities. The following graphic provides an overview of the broad and differing definitions of animal research.

Each State and Territory law also imposes offences for cruelty or ill treatment and for using animals for research without the required approvals. In some States and Territories, these offences extend to others involved in the research, such as those who breed or supply the animals, or those who allow or cause animals to be used for unlawful research. Several jurisdictions also impose positive duties of care on those taken to have care or charge of the animal. It is important to note that, as with all criminal offences, these offences could extend to anyone who aids or abets the commission of the offence.

In addition to these laws, organisations involved in animal research also need to be mindful of their potential obligations under a number of codes and standards, which are incorporated by reference in most States and Territories with varying legal effect. These include various industry-based Codes of Practice for the Welfare of Animals and Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for farm animals. Also relevant is the Australian Code for the Care and Use of Animals for Scientific Purposes (8th Edition, 2013) prepared by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) which provides an ethical framework and guiding principles for all individuals and organisations involved in the care and use of animals for scientific purposes, including carers, institutions, animal ethics committees and investigators. In some jurisdictions, offences apply for failures to comply with the NHMRC code.

How do these laws work in practice?

As an example, consider a dairy farmer, who decides to test whether introducing a new type of feed enhances the health of its dairy produce. The manufacturer of the new feed provides the dairy farmer with funding and materials to help the farmer test its new product. The distributor of the dairy produce is also involved, overseeing the testing.

In New South Wales, subjecting an animal to physical treatment or abnormal dietary conditions falls under the definition of animal research, meaning the project would likely require a current animal research authority, issued on the recommendation of an animal care and ethics committee. Under the forthcoming Northern Territory legislation, this project could also require registration and animal ethics committee approval, if performed to acquire, develop or demonstrate knowledge or techniques in an area of science. By contrast, in Tasmania, the institution conducting the testing will only require a licence if the testing is likely to have a significant adverse effect on the welfare of the animal.

If the farmer conducts the research without the relevant approvals or in breach of any relevant codes and standards, they could be committing an offence. The feed manufacturer and dairy distributor may also be liable under some State and Territory laws, considering their role in the research. This will ultimately be a question of degree, considering the extent of their involvement and where the research is being conducted.

In addition to the legal risks, there are clearly significant reputation and business risks that arise as a result of a research project not having the required animal or human ethics approvals in place or if the applicable laws and codes are breached. The risks are obviously amplified given the sensitive nature of animal research and the potential for negative media exposure.

Practical tips for compliance

There are a number of steps organisations involved in animal research can take to help mitigate their legal, reputation and business risks:

  • Know your obligations and risks. Organisations should carefully consider their involvement in animal research and understand their obligations under the various State and Territory animal welfare laws, as well as any relevant codes and standards.
  • Obtain all necessary licences and approvals. Researchers should ensure they have all necessary licences, approvals and registrations in place prior to any research commencing. Organisations working with animal researchers should agree on which party is responsible for obtaining the relevant approvals.
  • Establish processes that support compliance. For organisations working with animal researchers, this might include, for example, updating researcher selection processes to ensure that selected researchers have demonstrated their capacity to manage animal ethics approvals or involve Universities with this capacity.
  • Implement contractual protections. Organisations working with animal researchers should consider putting in place contractual protections to ensure research is undertaken in accordance with State and Territory laws. These protections might include, for example, specific obligations on researchers to comply with laws, regulations and codes of practice and standards relating to animal welfare in scientific research. Organisations might also require researchers to obtain all approvals, consents, licences or registrations (as relevant) as a contractual milestone or condition precedent before any research is commenced.

The main laws which regulate animal welfare and the care and use of animals for research purposes

State or Territory

Animal welfare and research laws

New South Wales

Animal Research Act 1985 and Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979

Australian Capital Territory

Animal Welfare Act 1992

Northern Territory

Soon to commence Animal Protection Act 2018,[1] replacing the Animal Welfare Act 2000


Animal Care and Protection Act 2001

South Australia

Animal Welfare Act 1985


Animal Welfare Act 1993


Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986

Western Australia

Animal Welfare Act 2002


[1] As at the date of writing, this Act has not yet commenced. The Department of Primary Industry and Resources has confirmed the Act will commence after the supporting regulations have been introduced and approved by Government. We understand these regulations are currently being drafted.