31 January 2023
Written by Reineke Hameleers
For the first time in over a decade, on the legislative side things are moving forward for animals in Europe, as the European Commission is working on the much needed revision of its animal welfare legislation.
This is certainly something to celebrate. European citizens have been calling for new or better rules on animal protection for years as we witnessed scandal after scandal, particularly concerning farmed animals. Dozens of exposés by animal welfare organisations and damning reports by the Commission’s own services, demonstrated beyond any doubt that too many of our existing laws on farm animal welfare are anachronistic, blatantly disregarded or only partially enforced. This has caused, and is still causing as I write, unspeakable suffering to billions of sentient beings.
Besides, as time went by, it became increasingly clear that our animal welfare legislation is based on outdated scientific evidence. The most recent opinions produced by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) on animal welfare on farm and during transport, which should inspire the revision of EU legislation, point towards the same conclusion: the science has evolved. It is time for legislation to follow suit. The intention is there, finally.
The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) “End the Cage Age” was an unprecedented success, which will possibly be mirrored by other ECIs and petitions on animal welfare that are gathering momentum. In its wake, the Commission committed to ending the use of cages in animal farming, which will require a profound rethinking of many existing intensive animal rearing systems (for laying hens, breeding sows, and rabbits, to name but a few). We are ready to use the best available science and defend best practices on animal welfare in the heated debates that certainly await us in the coming months and years.
We cannot forget that the European Union, much as it is a major global exporter, still imports large amounts of animal products from other geographical regions. In many cases these products are the result of farming practices that would be illegal under EU animal welfare (as well as environmental and labour) legislation. If the EU continues importing animal products from countries with lower or poor animal welfare standards, arguably this poses a moral dilemma for European citizens who in the great majority do not want substandard animal welfare products in the EU market.
This moral dilemma is only very marginally reflected in trade agreements. So far, only the Slaughter Regulation has been applicable to imported products. Things are not rosy: enforcing EU rules on the protection of animals at the time of killing has proven to be extremely problematic beyond the EU borders, as shown by several international audits and investigations. Certainly, much needs to be improved, yet this is the only way to go.
Farmed animal welfare laws exist because the EU has acknowledged that animals are sentient beings deserving lives worth living. In light of this, the double standard that is currently in place for imports is untenable.
It is often argued that WTO rules prohibit trade restrictions based on discriminatory standards as this could hamper equal chances for every nation to trade with each other on the global market. However, accepting imports from countries that do not comply with EU animal welfare rules arguably equates to violating the moral contract that the EU has established with its citizens.
The successful precedents of the bans on EU imports of cat and dog fur and, more recently, certain seal products – which were declared compatible with WTO rules – clearly show that matters of animal welfare are primarily of moral concern for European citizens and as such they should be legally treated. If carefully constructed, trade restrictions aimed at protecting animal welfare can be compliant with WTO rules.
Incidentally, it is often the case that products from countries with weaker rules for farmed animal welfare are cheaper. In the current scenario, where there is no obligation to label non-EU animal products, especially in processed food and in the hospitality industry, it is often impossible for consumers to determine the origin of what they are buying and eating. We are then faced with the paradox whereby citizens strongly demand even stricter rules for farmed animal welfare in the EU but as consumers they might be inadvertently supporting cruel farming practices elsewhere by buying low animal welfare products.
One might wonder how big this moral issue can be. Looking at Eurostat data, we can only conclude that it is huge. Among the main exporters of animal products to the EU (beef, pig, poultry and lamb meats, eggs, fish from aquaculture) there are Brazil, Argentina, China, the United States, Ukraine, India, Vietnam and Australia. In these countries, farmed animal welfare standards are either vague, fragmentary, non-binding, or non-existent. And there’s more.
Intensive animal agriculture is booming in many of these countries, a trend which, besides causing animal welfare problems, is environmentally unsustainable and a threat to public health. This should be all the more reason for the EU to impose its animal welfare rules on imports. Rather than seeing it as a barrier, the EU should approach this as a golden opportunity to promote higher-welfare and sustainable food production globally. Realistically, imposing requirements on imports will not force countries to change their entire animal welfare legislation straight away. However, as companies exporting to the EU are usually big corporations that are also pressured by NGOs to improve their animal welfare practices, their shift might eventually have a trickle down effect on federal and national legislations.
In this way the EU will lead the race to the top on global farmed animal welfare standards, once again heeding the call from its citizens who clearly indicated they expect leadership on this. Nine out of 10 respondents to the 2016 special Eurobarometer said that they want imported products to comply with EU legislation. Additionally, citizens would like the EU to do more to promote its animal welfare standards worldwide.
What does this mean in practice? Key aspects of the new and updated EU animal welfare legislation (on-farm rearing, transport, slaughter and labelling) should also be applied to imported products. This is the right thing to do, for so many reasons: it is what citizens want; it is a way to guarantee consumer rights; it will trigger positive changes worldwide; and it is compatible with WTO rules as it concerns the protection of public morals. Last, but not least, it will enable the EU to live up to its ambitions as global leader on animal welfare.