Could the UK knock Germany off the top spot for animal welfare?

The UK wants to become the first country in Europe to ban the export of animals for slaughter. [kanphitchaya | Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report (Agri-food) life after Brexit.

Germany and the United Kingdom are both angling to become pioneers in the field of animal welfare, with the UK saying Brexit has given it new freedom to boost standards. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Animal welfare is a hot topic in the EU right now. Most recently, the European citizens’ initiative End the Cage Age, which collected more than 1.4 million signatures between 2018 and 2020, received support at a hearing in the European Parliament.

Animal welfare is also a key part of the EU’s flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy (F2F), in which the European Commission outlined the need for the revision of European animal welfare legislation.

As part of this push, members of an inquiry committee on animal welfare in transport (ANIT) called on the Commission during a recent hearing to consider ending the export of live farmed animals to third countries.

At the December EU summit, European leaders also agreed to the introduction of a uniform EU-wide animal welfare label, an initiative driven by Germany with the backing of the country’s Agriculture Ministry (BMEL), which would like to see Germany become a pioneer in animal welfare.

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The UK – a global pioneer?

However, it is the UK, the first country in the world to grant animals legal protection from “unnecessary suffering” back in 1822, which has always been the front runner in the development of EU law on animal welfare, according to the British legal news website Jurist.

Having left the EU, the UK is free to unilaterally advance animal welfare standards, British animal welfare organisation RSPCA has said.

This view is apparently shared by the British government. The export of live farm animals, for example, could soon be a thing of the past, as the UK Environment Ministry announced in December.

The planned export ban is part of a “renewed effort by the government to strengthen the UK’s position as a global leader in animal welfare.”

The UK is the first country in Europe to end this practice, while within the EU, the transport of livestock, primarily on the way to the slaughterhouse, is also permitted across borders.

There are clear rules for this – for example, on the maximum duration of transport or the care of the animals during the journey.

In Germany, an additional national animal transport ordinance applies on top of EU laws, providing for even stricter rules in some areas.

The German agriculture ministry told EURACTIV it is in “consistent compliance” with this regulation. However, animal protection organisation PETA has said the protection remains inadequate and above all ensures “legalised animal suffering.”

Officially, the EU requirements also apply to the export of livestock to third countries. However, these standards cannot be implemented in many places outside the bloc, as the ANIT Committee criticised this week.

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‘Brexit success’ with a catch

British Environment Minister George Eustice recently hailed the British initiative as a “Brexit success.” However, the livestock export ban is limited in its scope.

Currently only England and Wales are affected by the ban, with Scottish participation pending. EU law continues to apply in Northern Ireland for the time being.

Most significantly of all, the ban excludes poultry. The UK exports millions of chickens every year, with exports worth 139 million pounds in 2018, according to the Guardian newspaper.

The UK also lags behind many EU countries when it comes to caged animal husbandry.

End the Cage Age ranks the UK only 8th among its list of the most cage-free countries in Europe.

More than 16 million animals are kept in cages on British soil, the equivalent of 34% of all stabled animals, compared to 14% in Germany, or 8.2 million caged animals, and just 3% in Austria.

However, the UK is also planning new steps in this area, with the government considering phasing out cage farming “to show that the UK can commit to higher standards now it has left the EU,” as the Telegraph reported at the end of March.

In addition, farmers are to receive support to end the breeding of so-called “frankenchickens” – overweight chickens that are disfigured by rapid fattening.

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Cages and slaughter transports: (no) end in sight?

Regardless of which country ultimately wins the race to be the continent’s top animal welfare pioneer, both the European and British sides will be keen consistently enforce new animal welfare standards in trade talks with the rest of the world.

That’s easier said than done, the German agriculture ministry admitted recently to EURACTIV, because its clear that a initiatives such as a European animal welfare label, for example, must not generate “any competitive disadvantages for producers outside the EU.”

However, any move to increase animal welfare in the EU or the UK may be undermined on the back of continued imports of animal products that do not comply with EU standards, stakeholders warn.

[Edited by Josie Le Blond]

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