EU agriculture ministers have called for the creation of EU-wide minimum standards for turkey farming, which, despite being the third most slaughtered animal, still lack specific legal regulations for their husbandry.
Dubbed the EU’s ‘forgotten farm animal’, more than 190 million of these birds are slaughtered across the bloc each year, making it the highest number of slaughtered animals after chickens and pigs.
Despite this, there is currently no EU-wide legislation safeguarding turkey welfare, although some member states, including Austria and Sweden, have introduced their own turkey welfare standards.
However, this could soon be set to change after Austria proposed, together with Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Slovakia, and Cyprus, at a recent AGRIFISH Council meeting the introduction of an EU-wide minimum standards in turkey farming.
These mandatory husbandry requirements for turkey farming should be based on up-to-date scientific knowledge and in line with the EU’s flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork Strategy, in which animal welfare features as a key theme, ministers said.
The move was broadly welcomed by member states.
Pointing out that decisions have already been taken for laying hens and broiler hens, Beate Kasch, state secretary at the German federal ministry of food and agriculture, said that the country, one of the five major turkey producing countries in the EU, backed the call.
While this must be based on scientific studies, it must also be “ambitious enough moving on to the current current practice,” she added.
Michele Quaroni, deputy permanent representative of Italy, went a step further, saying that minimum standards should go beyond establishing maximum stocking levels for live animals to include all factors and techniques that will help improve the welfare of turkeys should also be taken into account.
This was welcomed by Sarah Wiener, a Green MEP and long-time campaigner on the issue, who told EURACTIV turkey farming is a field of animal agriculture which suffers from severe animal welfare issues.
This includes breeding for extreme growth and excessively large breasts, high stocking densities, unstimulating environments and a high usage of antibiotics, she said.
Wiener added that, although a recent review of the existing scientific literature on turkey husbandry, carried out at the behest of Austria ahead of the proposal, recommended a maximum density for fattening turkeys of 36-40 kg live weight per square metre of usable area, this is often surpassed.
She acknowledged there are notable exceptions but pointed out that in some cases in the EU, this can reach as much as 65-70 kg of live weight in one square metre.
“This is unimaginable, and there’s no end to this nightmare,” she said. “We have the scientific evidence that we can change and we have to change this system. It’s not about feelings. It’s about hard, scientific facts”.
Too fast, too soon?
While Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides welcomed the move, she indicated there was too little time until the end of 2023 to draw up a legislative proposal on turkey husbandry, meaning this would only be envisaged after 2023.
Likewise, EU farmers association COPA-COGECA warned that legislators must not forget the complexity of the investments and efforts that lie behind these proposals.
“Going too fast will simply mean giving a green light to imports from all sides and make Europe the first trading block to create an “animal welfare leakage” effect,” a spokesperson told EURACTIV.
“European turkey farmers are prepared to further increase standards according to a market driven approach. However, the debate must be based on science and must recognise the already existing efforts and initiatives on the ground,” they added, calling for a comprehensive impact assessment before any action is taken.
These concerns were shared by some member states who stressed that the economic implications of such measures must be taken into account.
“Yes, we want to improve animal welfare. But we’ve also got to look at profitability of the livestock sector,” said Italy’s Quaroni, adding that changes to legislation in all of these areas will “obviously create a challenge for our farmers and livestock breeders”.
Croatia’s agriculture minister, Marija Vuković, warned that the stocking index density proposed “would jeopardise production and have negative effects”.
“This is why we have reservations towards this proposal because it would reduce the volume of production for turkey meat in comparison to what we’ve currently got,” she said.
However, this line of argument does not hold up to scrutiny, according to Green MEP Wiener, who pointed out that Austria has already demonstrated that turkey farmers can survive economically with this standard, which proves that “the other countries in in Europe could have the same standard”.
“If we only propose [standards] in three or four years, you have to imagine that it means that generations of turkeys will suffer,” she warned.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]