EU official: Imposing animal welfare standards on imports would be WTO compliant

Calling it a "wise" move, the EU official highlighted there is a “very strong desire” from both the public and farmers for such restrictions. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

It would be wise to impose the equivalent standards of animal welfare on meat imports coming into the EU, according to a top EU official, who said this would be compliant with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, provided it was based on “ethical grounds”.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, highlighted that there is a “very strong desire” from the public and farmers for such a move.

His comments come on the back of an increasing focus on animal welfare in the EU, which features as a key theme of the EU’s flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy.

As part of a drive to improve animal welfare standards, the strategy sets out a plan for the Commission to revise the animal welfare legislation to align it with the latest scientific evidence, broaden its scope, make it easier to enforce and ultimately ensure a higher level of animal welfare.

Plans for an EU-wide animal welfare labelling scheme are also well underway after EU agricultural ministers gave their backing to the plans in December last year.

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While this push for higher animal welfare standards has been widely welcomed, farmers have been increasingly concerned that the imposition of higher standards of animal welfare in the EU may see their business undercut by imports of meat produced under lower standards from third countries.

However, this argument would not stand up for the WTO, the official said, explaining that any restriction on imports would only pass “provided it was based on demonstrable ethical concerns”.

This is one of the exceptions permitted under the WTO, the official said, pointing out that the EU’s restrictions on imports of seal skins have already set a precedent for this.

“Animal welfare can be accommodated in the WTO rules,” the official said, provided that the response was “proportionate to the problem it was trying to fix” and done in a transparent manner.

Speaking at a recent press conference, Alan Matthews, professor emeritus of European agricultural policy at Ireland’s Trinity College, said he would welcome such an opportunity to bring trading partners in line with EU standards.

Pointing out that such a move would be “good for the planet and easier for our farmers to undertake the transition,” he added that raising animal welfare standards would not disadvantage farmers relative to other countries.

“This is not an argument not to take the first step,” he said.

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Commenting on the possibility of such a move, a spokesperson for the European Livestock Voice told EURACTIV that European agriculture is among the “most advanced in terms of commitment to animal welfare,” and this could go further, in line with the ambitions of the Green Deal.

In making this vision a reality, the EU official said, the EU trade policy review could have a “decisive impact.”

“As a side effect of the Green Deal, we may face dumping from countries that will – voluntarily or not – move more slowly with the adoption of a greener agriculture, including on animal welfare,” the official warned and went on:

“The cumulative access from the 60+ trade agreements to our market by third-country producers such as Mercosur, that do not always have to fulfil the same production standards, will continue to bring prices down. This would put enormous pressure on EU farmers, which will considerably reduce their ability to invest in our natural resources, undermining the objectives of the Green Deal.”

However, the European Livestock Voice spokesperson questioned whether such a proposal would be enough to ensure the consistency of future agreements with the principles of the Green Deal, including on animal welfare.

“The limitations and obligations to which European producers must adhere to will be hard to monitor effectively and we will have to remain extremely careful,” the ELV warned.

Olga Kikou, head of the EU Office of the campaign group Compassion in World Farming, told EURACTIV that her organisation strongly supports incorporating strong animal welfare criteria for imports of all animal products, and the scope of this should be widened beyond meat.

“Given the need for a shift towards reduction in production and consumption of animal products in the EU, and the EU’s ambitions to promote plant-rich diets, as outlined in the EU Commission’s Farm to Fork strategy and Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, we expect that the EU will take measures to ensure that this also applies to imports, not just production in the EU,” she said.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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