On the 9th October 2018, PubAffairs Bruxelles organised in partnership with B2C2 a debate on the question of animal welfare in the EU and beyond with Mr Marco Valletta, Member of the Cabinet of Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, European Commission, Ms Toni Shephard, Executive Director, Animal Equality UK, Mr John Flack MEP (ECR/UK), Ms Tilly Metz MEP (Greens/LU) and Ms Stephanie Ghislain, Project Leader, ‘Trade and Animal welfare’, Eurogroup for Animals. A video message from Ms Sirpa Pietikäinen MEP (EPP/FI) was projected before the debate.
Mr Maxime Boonen, Director & Founder, B2C2 held an introductory speech, while Mr Matteo Cupi, Executive Director of Animal Equality Italy, presented a video on rabbit farms in Europe. The debate was moderated by Robert McLeod, Chairman, MLex.
Mr Maxime Boonen, co-founder of B2C2, started his introductory speech by reminding the audience that in Article 13 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), the EU recognises animals as sentient beings and provides that there should be full regard to their well being. Even though the EU is the only jurisdiction to grant this status to animals worldwide, much work remains to be done, he stated. The speaker expressed a wish to systematically include animal welfare in all EU trade negotiations and suggested that the EU should refuse access to the single market to substandard products, both on the basis of public health concerns and a desire to outlaw cruel practices undermining animal welfare. The speaker highlighted that the EU embodies a ‘race to the top’ in terms of social justice, stating that EU citizens desire a world in which the pursuit of material wealth is balanced by moral obligations towards the environment and the defence of the fundamental rights of sentient beings. In light of these priorities, the speaker maintained that the EU should apply its leverage as the world’s richest trading bloc to enforce labour protection within the internal market and to promote the fight against climate change; as occurred in the case of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) signed with Canada.
Robert McLeod then introduced Mr Matteo Cupi, who presented a video on battery rabbit farming in Italy.
Mr Matteo Cupi explained that Animal Equality has conducted several investigations at farms for the past ten years, and that among the hundreds of facilities they have visited both within and outside of Europe, many examples of appalling conditions were found. Before starting the video, he pointed out that the rabbit farming industry is characterised by a total lack of regulation within the EU, highlighting the cases of Spain and Italy discovered during the investigation. The speaker also explained that more than 300 million rabbits are farmed for meat in the European Union every year, but despite this there is no specific law setting minimum welfare standards for these animals. The speaker also recalled that in 2017 MEPs voted overwhelmingly in favour of improving welfare standards for farmed rabbits, including drafting legislation banning the use of battery cages. However, according to parliamentarians, the Commission has not yet acted accordingly. Indeed, in April 2018 the European Commission released a report entitled “commercial farming of rabbits in the European Union”, which concluded that the rabbit farming sector is in line with existing EU legislative requirements. However, Animal Equality’s recent investigations question this finding and call upon the Commission to draft legislation protecting farmed rabbits, including a complete ban on cages.
The moderator, after introducing the panellists, began the debate by asking Mr Marco Valletta what his views are with regard to the direction the European Commission should be taking concerning animal welfare.
Mr Valletta started by acknowledging that the images of farmed rabbits depicted in the video are shocking, while defending the work of EU institutions. He drew attention to the limited resources of the Commission in the area of animal welfare and underlined that implementation and inspection to prevent the occurrence of such regrettable instances remain EU’s member states competences. Mr Valletta clarified that in the case of rabbits, farming is mainly happening in three countries – France, Spain and Italy – which explains why there is not a real EU-wide dimension to the problem. In addition to this, there are several urgent matters at hand for EU institutions regarding animal welfare. He continued by expressing that animal welfare and animal rights have been top priorities for Commissioner Andriukaitis, and emphasised that it is one of the domains on which his cabinet has worked the most since the beginning of its mandate. The speaker subsequently explained that animal welfare matters for several reasons. Firstly, as mentioned in Mr Boonen’s speech, it is compulsory under Article 13 of the TFEU, something of which the EU can be proud. Moreover, according to a Eurobarometer conducted in 2015, the vast majority of EU citizens consider animal welfare as a matter of concern. Thirdly, animal welfare is particularly important as one of the main priorities of the incumbent Commission is sustainability, which is strongly linked to the farming sector. Lastly, the speaker recalled that animal welfare is a crucial issue in terms of public health.
On the same note, to explain the work of Commissioner Andriukaitis in the past four years, Mr Valletta detailed the legacy that this Commission inherited. Indeed, while a “Strategy for the Protection and Welfare of Animals” was launched in 2013, in 2014 when Mr Andriukaitis began his mandate, 13 out of the 20 actions listed in the strategy had not yet been finalised. Mr Valletta consequently stated that the priorities of Commissioner Andriukaitis were the implementation of rules concerning living conditions for pigs and conditions during transportation for farmed animals more broadly; domains in which a lack of implementation has been registered. The Commission also conducted studies on the EU’s actions in the international arena to gain a global view of the issues at stake. Finally, the speaker explained, that the European Commission has, crucially, included Animal welfare among the areas of action of the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
In light of these considerations, Mr Valletta clarified that there is an important body of legislation covering all farmed animals and highlighted that it is late to launch the procedure for a new law during the current legislature. Moreover, Member States have so far demonstrated little appetite to engage with additional legislative requirements, he stated. According to Mr Valletta, what the EU currently needs is better implementation, while making every stakeholder aware of their respective responsibilities. For these reasons, the Commission has put together the Animal Welfare Platform, which gathers the industry and relevant stakeholders, such as NGOs, farmers, the food industry, consumers, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The speaker added that the work of the Platform highlights that dialogue between industry and NGOs is urgently needed. Launched in 2017 with 75 members, the Platform has delivered with regard to pigs’ welfare, including during transport, he suggested. In addition, Mr Valetta explained that another issue the European Commission has been working on is EU reference centres on Animal Welfare – centres with experts able to support the Commission with the enforcement and the implementation of legislation by elaborating indicators concerning animal welfare in Europe. At the same time, Mr Valletta pointed out that the Commission is working on other issues, such as horses and other animals; in particular, pets involved in commercial practices. The speaker concluded by stating that informed choices, and potentially labelling, could also be a means to tackle the issue of animal welfare, while highlighting that better animal welfare brings a cost for consumers.
The moderator asked Mr Flack MEP to elaborate on his views regarding animal welfare, underscoring the question of EU Member States’ implementation of farm-related policies in this area.
Mr Flack MEP replied that he thought citizens understand very well if an animal is suffering – referring once again to the example of caged rabbits. So, there is no need either for the European Commission or for panels to tell them. When there is a clear political will to act, EU institutions often manage to find an effective solution to policy problems and vice versa, he added. The speaker went on to argue that attitudes towards animal welfare and other key societal issues have changed over time. The speaker stressed the sanctity of life and expressed his agreement with Mr Valletta that consumers can make a choice, but only if sufficient information is made available to them. According to Mr Flack, European citizens demand action and for an end to be put to the appalling conditions endured by many farmed animals, notably during transport to slaughter. Mr Flack MEP stated that governments are in power to serve the people, to educate them, and to lead. Politics has a role to play in diffusing citizens’ ideas, as well as to some extent attempting to persuade the public regarding certain issues, he remarked. Taking the example of tobacco labelling portraying the health risks entailed with smoking, the speaker asserted that in an ideal world he would like to install screens depicting slaughter and the living conditions for farmed animals, including rabbits, above every supermarket meat counter.
The moderator raised the issue of enhancing agricultural standards in the EU and possible implications for both the internal market and external trade.
Ms Stephanie Ghislain answered that she does not consider it detrimental, however EU trade policy needs to address the issue and to be better used to raise standards. Currently, she added, only restrictions applying to the slaughter of farmed animals are imposed on imports into the Union. Recently, the Commission and the Council have adopted legislation on veterinary medicine used in production, which represents good progress; however, such requirements are not applied comprehensively to imports. According to the speaker, these standards should be a pre-condition to receive preferential market access as a means of encouraging global partners to raise their standards. She took the example of animal slaughter, for which she estimates that this approach has been effective. Indeed, it was imposed by the EU on all its partners, and a study from DG SANTE on the impact of EU activities around the world shows that producers have not experienced any additional burden related to raising standards to the EU’s benchmark in this domain. The speaker added that not imposing EU requirements upon imports pressurises European producers who face higher costs related to animal welfare requirements and, as a result, more intense competition.
Regarding labelling, while Ms Ghislain acknowledged that this is an important issue, she stressed that current practices are not sufficient and further legislation is necessary, as the burden cannot fall exclusively on consumers to inform their own choices. Regulation regarding labelling, if introduced, should be compulsory, she stated. She referred to a study conducted in 2017 demonstrating that a clear majority of European consumers do not trust labels in general, as they can be too complicated and, at times, misleading. It is therefore important to ensure that any labelling system is clear to avoid such shortfalls. Lastly, the speaker stated that it needed to be recognized by the Commission that problems, such as climate change and anti-microbial resistance, are linked to the issue of animal welfare.
Ms Tilly Metz MEP started her statement by raising doubts about Mr Valletta’s claims concerning the inclusion of animal welfare standards among the objectives of the CAP. She also highlighted that the main criteria for subventions from the EU remains farm size, which encourages industrial farming and insufficient welfare standards. Although more funding can be granted in return for increased animal welfare standards, such improvements remain voluntary.
Responding to Mr Valletta, Ms Metz defended the Parliament’s work, explaining that it was particularly difficult as the figures given to MEPs who inquired about countries’ policies regarding animal testing often proved inaccurate. After acknowledging that only three people are working on animal welfare at the Commission, she wondered why they are depleting these restricted resources to develop platforms, rather than focusing on improving reporting. According to Ms Metz, a lot of live animals are exported from Europe in awful conditions, despite transport being an official priority. The speaker expressed that she regards controls to be rarely precise. To conclude, Ms Metz asked Mr Valletta why the Commission is not working on a new strategy for animal welfare when the last strategy expired in 2015.
Mr McLeod moved on to question Ms Shephard about the performance of EU animal welfare policies, indicators concerning which recently suggested insufficient outcomes. He inquired about Animal Equality’s work and what she considers its impact to be at the Member State level, for example in Spain and in the UK.
Ms Toni Shephard explained that Animal Equality contacted national theatres in London serving rabbit meat and asked them to attempt to trace the farms supplying it. After the chefs saw footage filmed at these farms, they immediately removed this meat from the menu. Consequentially, she explained that Animal Equality targets corporations and businesses serving meat to inform them of the reality concerning its production and to attempt to influence them to act on this issue. However, she stressed that the main objective of the campaign was to support the European Parliament’s movement towards a specific legislation for farmed rabbits. According to her, a single body of legislation on all farmed animals is inadequate, as every species has their own needs. She also shared her regret concerning the European Commission’s argument that rabbit meat is only produced in three EU Member States, adding that this does not prevent rabbits from being the second most exploited farm animal in Europe.
To conclude, the moderator asked Mr Valletta to respond to some of the comments made by the panellists directed at the Commission.
Mr Valletta started by explaining that the reason for which the Commission has not launched a revised animal welfare law is, among others, the need to finalise and evaluate the existing strategy and a lack of desire in this regard among a number of Member States. He added that tabling a text at the wrong moment could be counterproductive – in today’s context, it could actually end up reducing animal rights, rather than enhancing them.
Concerning the international issues discussed, Mr Valletta underlined the legal impossibility for the EU to impose animal welfare standards on third countries. Banning imports from countries which do not respect EU standards may lead to a trade war with the rest of the world. As such, the Commission’s strategy is to work with the EU’s partners through several channels on agreements to promote improvements regarding animal welfare, for example multilateral discussions through the OIE and bilateral negotiations with third countries. The speaker mentioned referred to the example of Chile, a large producer of meat and live animals, which now has very high animal welfare standards comparable to those of the EU due to an agreement signed with the Union in 2002.
Concerning Ms Metz’s comment about a lack of reporting and inspection, Mr Valletta replied that the Commission does not have an authoritative body checking slaughter houses, boats and trucks to assess how animals are treated, as this remains a member-state competence. He highlighted, in particular, the small number of EU officials operating in this domain. The EU Commission, Mr Valletta explained, has one hundred global inspectors who can check the system (with the agreement of Member States) to produce reports on food safety.
To conclude, on the topic of a new strategy for animal welfare, the speaker clarified that the ‘Strategy 2012-2015’ (finalised in 2018) is due an evaluation in 2019, as requested by the Court of Justice in Luxembourg. On the basis of this evaluation, the next Commission may make further progress regarding a new strategy.
The Q&A session covered the following issues: Member State transparency concerning their decisions and actions at the Council of the EU with regard to animal welfare, the dignity of animals, the role of the Commission as ‘Guardian of the Treaties’, high animal welfare standards legislated in Sweden, the rising engagement of citizens for the improved quality of meat, and the ban of battery farming in Germany.
Want to know more about the issues discussed in this debate? Then, take a look at the selected sources provided below!
EU platform on animal welfare, European Commission
Future of the common agricultural policy, European Commission
EU trade negotiations and agreements, European Commission
Study on the impact of animal welfare international activities, Vol 1, European Commission
EU strategy for the protection and welfare of animals 2012-2015, European Commission
EU minimum standards for the protection of pigs, European Commission
Ban on animal testing, European Commission
European Parliament Intergroup on the Welfare and Conservation of Animals, European Parliament
Animal Welfare, European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)
Opinions, European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)
A new animal welfare strategy for 2016-2020, European Parliament
EU animal welfare strategy, 2012-2015: state of play and possible next steps, European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS)
Animal welfare in the European Union: study, Directorate General for Internal Policies, European Parliament
The role of EFSA in assessing and promoting animal health and welfare, European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) Journal, 10 (10), special issue
Background paper: animal welfare in the EU, European Court of Auditors (ECA)
The welfare of farmed rabbits in commercial production systems: a scientific review, Compassion in world farming
Annual report, Eurogroup for Animals
Investigations, Animal Welfare
CAP takes one small step for animal welfare, when a giant leap is required, Eurogroup for Animals
Rabbit farming gets EU lawmakers hopping mad, Euractiv
“End the cage age”, Petition
Working for Improved Animal Welfare, John Flack MEP website
Animal welfare protection legally permitted in trade policy, Eurogroup for Animals
Animal welfare, trade and sustainable development, Eurogroup for Animals
Model provisions on animal welfare for EU trade agreements, Eurogroup for Animals