As the UK prepares to ban the live export of animals, the debate over the practice is also gaining traction in the EU, although the bloc is unlikely to follow suit any time soon, according to MEP Tilly Metz.
The UK’s environment secretary, George Eustice, unveiled plans to ban the export of live animals for slaughter and fattening from England and Wales earlier this month, which would make them the first in Europe to end this practice.
This is something the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) said was part of a renewed push to strengthen Britain’s position as a world leader on animal welfare, positioning the plan to diverge from the EU stance on the matter as a Brexit success story.
However, live exports are set to continue in Northern Ireland which “will continue to follow EU legislation on animal welfare in transport for as long as the Northern Ireland protocol is in place”, according to DEFRA. Poultry exports will also be exempt from the new rules.
The Northern Ireland protocol was set out in the withdrawal agreement London signed with the EU before leaving the bloc at the end of 2019 and was designed to avoid the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland.
The news comes on the back of increasing debate over the transport of live animals both within the EU and to third countries, which has taken on renewed importance in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
Each year, a billion poultry birds and tens of millions of other farm animals are transported within and outside of the EU to be bred from, fattened or slaughtered.
Similar move ‘far off’
Reacting to the news of the UK plans, Metz, chair of the European Parliament’s newly formed Inquiry Committee on the Protection of Animals during Transport (ANIT), told EURACTIV that she was “positively surprised”.
She said she would be “curious what effects this decision will have on the UK’s food system,” and how the system would be re-localised to work on reducing a surplus in farmed animals.
However, a similar ban in the EU seems to be “quite far off in the future” she said, because the decision to limit the export of live animals lies with member states, or in some cases, regions.
“It is however encouraging that more and more bans are popping up across Europe. The necessity of shipping live animals halfway across the planet is thus increasingly questioned and alternatives, such as meat-and-carcass transport, are slowly becoming more popular,” Metz said.
Speaking at a recent Protection of Animals during Transport (ANIT) Committee meeting, EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski voiced his support for a significant reduction in the transport of live animals but fell short of calling for an outright ban.
Despite noting considerable improvements across member states in this area, he highlighted that in long journeys there continues to be “dramatic, unacceptable situations completely out of kilter with the EU system of values with the basic principles that the animals are sentient beings and must be treated accordingly”.
Calling the issue “close to his heart,” Wojciechowski added he will “spare no efforts” to ensure that the proposed animal welfare label, currently under discussion, reflects all the stages of the food chain, including the treatment of animals during transport.
He said there are a number of instruments he will look to mobilise in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to achieve this, including in a proposed eco-scheme for animal protection.
However, industry and farming stakeholders warn that the issue is complex.
“Generally speaking, we believe that the existing regulations about animal transport should be upheld; the practice should not be judged on some examples of bad practice spread by NGOs when strict rules exist and are applied in the vast majority of cases,” the European Livestock Voice (ELV) told EURACTIV.
They impressed the importance of transporting live animals within the EU for a number of reasons, including for religious reasons in the production of Halal and Kosher meat, and because some countries are more advanced in terms of selective performant breeding.
This view was shared by Karsten Maier, secretary-general of the European livestock and meat trades union (UECBV), who added that decision-makers must be wary of making rash political decisions about such a complex issue.
“Because of market pressure, the sector has become highly specialised over decades. This is not something that can be changed overnight,” he warned, adding that the livestock industry is vastly more complex than others as it involves living beings.
He also warned of the consequences of the UK’s decision, highlighting that the UK is dependent on the imports of breeding animals to sustain their livestock sector.
“This could have a huge effect on UK production,” he warned.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]