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Does the Animal Welfare Strategy Go Far Enough?

19 January 2012, at 10:02p.m.

ANALYSIS - Today, the European Commission has adopted a new four-year strategy that aims to further improve the welfare of animals in the European Union, writes Charlotte Johnston, editor of ThePoultrySite. Animal welfare groups believe the strategy lacks critical elements to make it effective.

"The recent coming into force of the legislation on laying hen welfare has shown that problems persist in animal welfare in several Member States. Some efforts are being made, but many issues need to be tackled in a different way in order to achieve more sustainable results. The new strategy will permit appropriate flexibility allowing operators to attain the necessary welfare standards by different routes.

EU Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner, John Dalli, said: "Optimising policy coherence and market transparency in a comprehensive animal welfare legislative framework will minimise real or perceived tensions between welfare and economics. Animal welfare measures need to be cost-effective. The proposed dedication of resources to education and training is expected to be highly cost-effective, economically and in welfare terms."

To address issues and concerns around animal welfare, the Strategy provides for a two-pronged approach: a proposal for a comprehensive animal welfare law and a reinforcement of current actions. The legislation to be proposed is expected to promote an innovative approach focusing on actual welfare outcomes instead of mechanistic inputs, and to increase the focus on the education and professional standards of all parties concerned.

The second element proposes a reinforcement and the optimisation of current Commission actions: enhancing tools to strengthen Member State compliance with the legal requirements; boosting the already existing international co-operation on animal welfare issues; providing consumers with better information, and performing studies where animal welfare appears to encounter the most problems.

Welfare group views

David Bowles from the RSPCA UK said: “While there are some good things about this strategy, many species of animals are ignored and it falls far short of properly delivering the laws and progress we think are already long overdue.

“For instance, no reference is made as to how the Commission will overcome the huge challenges to enforce EU-wide bans on intensive systems such as the barren battery cage or the upcoming ban on sow stalls. There is also no mention of any new legislation to improve the welfare of dairy cows.

“If the EU really wants to make a difference to animal welfare in the EU in the next five years, it needs a strategy that deals with all animals, and ensures laws are effective and not just pieces of paper. It needs a strategy which recognises the links between good animal welfare, good animal health and improving the environment.

“This strategy just does not go far enough. We have written to agriculture minister Jim Paice to express our dismay and hope he will take our message to the EC.”

Supporting Mr Bowles' response, EuroGroup for Animals and Compassion in World Farming say that the Strategy misses huge opportunities for EU animals.

Both Sonja Van Tichelen, Director of Eurogroup for Animals and Peter Stevenson, Compassion in World Farming’s Chief Policy Advisor commented on the policy's lack of attention to key welfare issues, including long-distance transport and the cloning of animals for food.

Industry views

Copa-Cogeca, EU farming union representative Secretary-General, Pekka Pesonen, warned that the Strategy lacks concrete actions on how better to distribute along the food chain the high animal welfare production costs EU producers have to meet – costs not met by our non-EU country partners.

Mr Pesonen continued: “I also question whether consumers will always pay a higher price for welfare-friendly products, and urge the Commission to continue research into this. Furthermore, there is no recognition of the huge efforts and long-term investments EU producers have to go through to meet these standards. The EU must ensure when negotiating trade agreements with non-EU countries that the same standards which apply in the EU also apply to imports. Unfortunately, the strategy is missing this opportunity to put concrete actions forward.”

Per Olsen, Chairman of Copa-Cogeca Working Party on Animal Health and Welfare, stressed: “I am glad to see that the this strategy puts focus on simplification, reduction of red tape and better recognition of the high EU welfare standards to our consumers. We welcome the study foreseen to understand the feasibility and contribution of a simplified EU legislative framework.

“Legislation based on animal welfare outcomes may be a step forward, provided that the right outcomes are chosen. We need to be careful on the use of indicators developed within the Welfare Quality Project as it is still too complicated and needs to be further simplified. Flexibility is needed since we are addressing live animals, and animal biology may differ from case to case. In addition, the industry already plays an important role in ensuring high on farm welfare standards through private schemes or codes of good practices, and this should be recognised by the EU."

UK National Farming Union Vice President, Gwyn Jones, said: “This is a positive step by the Commission but the ‘devil will be in detail’, something which is lacking at this stage. Existing rules must be correctly implemented and enforced, and this should always be done in preference to creating new legislation or additional bureaucracy. I am particularly pleased, therefore, that one of the main themes of the strategy is the development of a simpler EU legislative framework for animal welfare.

“The strategy also proposes the use of ‘science-based’ welfare indicators which have the potential to improve compliance across all Member States – this is a positive aim for the EU but it is important that the introduction of these indicators should not carry an extra cost burden for our UK farmers or threaten the high standards of animal welfare that are already met through existing voluntary schemes such as Red Tractor.”

Consumer views

Research from IGD shows that 47 per cent of UK shoppers say they are willing to pay extra for free-range and other products produced to high animal welfare standards.

The Action Plan will be presented at EU Farm Ministers meeting on 23 January. A conference to launch the new EU animal welfare strategy will be co-organised by the Danish Presidency and European Commission in Brussels on 29 February and 1 March 2012.

For more information on the EU Action Plan, click here.