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15th Apr 2024

EU 'must frame new animal welfare rules'

  • 82 percent of EU citizens said the welfare of farm animals should "probably" or "certainly" be improved (Photo: Kol Tregaskes)

A group of northern and western European ministers called on the European Commission to come up with new rules to improve animal welfare standards on Tuesday (15 March), as an EU-wide poll suggests increasing concern among EU citizens about the treatment of farm animals.

“Cows, pigs, and chickens are not production units, they are sentient beings,” said Martijn van Dam, agriculture minister for the Netherlands, at a seminar in the European Parliament on Tuesday.

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  • Discarded bodies of ducks who died during force-feeding at foie gras production, according to US animal rights organisation Farm Sanctuary. (Photo: Farm Sanctuary)

“They have a right to more care and more protection.”

Together with colleagues from Sweden, Belgium, and Germany, he asked the EU commission to write a new strategy paper on animal welfare. The old one expired at the end of last year.

“Things are gradually improving in the Netherlands,” said Van Dam.

“Now, in order to improve animal welfare across the whole of Europe, to create a level playing field, and to facilitate the marketing of animal products, we need to have a new animal welfare strategy on an EU level.”

The Dutch official said that for example the commission should investigate the impact of capping animal transport time to a maximum of eight hours.

Foie gras to foie fair

His colleague Ben Weyts, minister in the Belgian region Flanders, said the new plan should also include rules to protect pets, and suggested pet registration tools should be standardised across Europe to combat illegal trade of puppies and kittens.

Weyts noted that European citizens care deeply about animal welfare, and that he could not understand why policy-makers in Brussels were not doing more in that field, as it would be “a perfect possibility for advocates of European integration to present themselves”.

In his speech, Weyts also noted that European standards now sometimes run counter to animal welfare, for example in the case of EU minimum weight requirements for foie gras – fattened duck or goose liver.

“It is almost impossible to reach the unrealistic standard of the European Union without force-feeding,” he said.

“If we lower the bar, it will become possible to get the label of foie gras without so much animal suffering, and foie gras could become foie fair.”

In France, foie gras is seen as a cultural delicacy. Attitudes towards food vary according to cultural traditions across Europe.

'Aim for quality'

The same day as the event took place in Brussels, an EU-funded survey was published about attitudes towards animal welfare.

According to the Eurobarometer poll, 44 percent of EU citizens said the welfare of farm animals should “certainly” be better protected (they were 35 percent in 2006), while 38 percent agreed that this should “probably” happen (42 percent in 2006). The total of those two categories increased from 77 to 82 percent in 10 years.

When asked what layer of government should make the rules for animal welfare, 28 percent of respondents said it should be done mainly by the national government, while 19 percent supported a mainly EU approach. Some 49 percent said it should happen at both levels.

However, when asked if consumers would be willing to pay more for food produced in a way that was animal-friendly, the survey showed large divergences between richer and poorer member states in the EU.

In seven member states (Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Lithuania, Poland, Bulgaria, Portugal) a majority said they would not be willing to pay even 5 percent more. Another five member states (Spain, Latvia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Greece) had over 40 percent of respondents not wanting to pay more.

Flemish minister Ben Weyts told this website that several countries saw improving animal welfare and a profitable agricultural sector as incompatible.

However, he argued that if the label Made in Europe would mean "made with maximum respect for animal welfare", that would give European farmers a competitive edge.

“We have to aim for quality in Europe, and for animal welfare”, said Weyts. “That is an economic argument, not only ethical.”

MEPs urge 'ambitious strategy'

The EU commission was also present at the EP event in Brussels. Michael Scannell, food chain director at the commission's food policy department, spoke frankly about why it was unlikely the Dutch-German-Swedish-Belgian demands would be met soon.

“We have had to accept, this is the vanguard of pressure for more action on animal welfare,” he said about the northern/western European alliance.

“When we hear, and we do, demands for more legislation, we have to keep in mind, frankly, the lack of support there is in a great many quarters for more legislation in this area.”

Scannell called to memory that negotiations for EU rules on animal transport adopted in 2004 were “extraordinarily difficult”.

“It caused a lot of bitterness, and difficulties at the time, and caused some very serious divisions,” he said.

“We can launch lots of more legislative initiatives and again, cause real divisions. We are more interested in seeing concrete on-the-ground progress.

“If cooperation and guidelines help that, we'll do it, and we'll make no apology for it.”

The commission is only likely to take more legislative action if other member states apply pressure.

The European Parliament has already shown that it wants a new animal welfare strategy.

In a non-binding text adopted last November, MEPs said the commission should “draw up a new and ambitious strategy for the protection and welfare of animals for the 2016-2020 period”.

The text was supported by 542 MEPs, or 85 percent of those who voted.

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European Court of Auditors found there were "still some significant discrepancies between the animal welfare standards established in the EU legislation and the reality on the ground".

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