Time for EU rabbit farming to enter the 21st century

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

A rabbit farm in Poland. CIWF investigation, 2015 [CIWF]

Raising rabbits for food used to be a back yard enterprise. Not anymore, writes Olga Kikou, who urges the adoption of EU-wide standards to improve the living condition of farmed rabbits in Europe.

Olga Kikou is European affairs manager for Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), an international NGO working on the welfare of farm animals and sustainable farming and food.

These days the Agriculture Committee of the European Parliament is discussing an Own Initiative Report on Minimum Standards for the Protection of Farm Rabbits. The report aims at improving conditions of farmed rabbits in the EU.  According to FAO statistics, close to 330 million rabbits are farmed in the EU yearly, while 99% of them are kept in small cages.

Rabbits are the second most farmed species in the EU. They have a versatile use for humans. Besides their function as a food animal, many of them are kept as companion animals, used in experiments, or raised and killed for their fur.

Raising rabbits for food used to be a back yard enterprise. While this is still true in some regions, the sector has evolved over the years and a close look at current rabbit farming practices easily reveals how these soft, furry animals endure immense suffering throughout their short lives.

A 2014 CIWF investigation into rabbit farming in five Member States (Italy, Czech Republic, Greece, Cyprus, Poland) found appalling welfare conditions and illegal husbandry practices. This investigation backs up the findings of a similar investigation undertaken in France, Italy and Spain in 2012 (these countries collectively produce more than three quarters of the Union’s rabbit meat).

Rabbits are raised in small barren wire cages. Some of the problems related to the living conditions include severe restriction of movement, inadequate space and height, overcrowding, barren environment, lack of social interaction, injuries and high rates of disease and mortality.

In addition, there is heavy use of antibiotics in order to prevent the spread of disease. These conditions are clearly in breach of Council Directive 98/58 on the protection of animals kept for farming purposes which calls on all owners and keepers of animals “to take all reasonable steps to ensure the welfare of animals under their care and to ensure that those animals are not caused any unnecessary pain, suffering or injury”.

Many current practices are also contrary to the recommendations of the European Food Safety Authority report (2005) and are demonstrated in the scientific literature to cause poor welfare. Over ten years have passed since the report was produced and many issues highlighted then continue to be of concern today.

Rabbits in cages, many under stress and with visible injuries, confined in tiny cages of bare wire with individual space not bigger than an A4 sheet of paper, are unable to express their natural behaviours of hopping, moving freely, digging or hiding.

Other farming sectors are moving away from cages, most notably the egg sector; the EU has already banned the keeping of hens in barren battery cages. At the same time, consumers and retailers alike support and adopt the ‘cage free’ wave that is sweeping across the EU and US. The rabbit sector though lags behind, permitting farmed rabbits to be kept in cages that have been outlawed for hens.

As observed during the deliberations in the European Parliament and at meetings where the farming sector is present, there is a lot of resistance in bringing this sector to well-accepted and modern farming practices.

In recent years, significant developments have been made in improving husbandry methods, and some farmers are adopting the more humane ‘park system’ that guarantees better welfare than barren or enriched cages, by offering more comfortable flooring, significantly more space and height for movement and other natural behaviours and provides enrichment materials.

It is clear that rabbit farming is in deep crisis. Prices are decreasing while production costs have increased. A continued decline in consumption of rabbit meat worries producers and their representatives. At the same time, the import of cheaper rabbit meat from China, has farmers casts serious doubts about the future that lies ahead.

While some MEPs in support of this sector have argued that banning cages would mean the loss of many farming jobs, one can only wonder how at a time when citizens demand better conditions for farm animals (Eurobarometer 2015), this sector could survive without changing its practices.

Acknowledging the need to significantly improve husbandry standards in the farms by moving away from cages to alternative systems, while also supporting legislation for the protection of rabbits will prove to be an inevitable step that producers have to take if they want to remain competitive.

Offering ‘quality’ to the consumer, as we keep hearing again and again, can only mean that higher animal welfare standards are also adopted. Keeping rabbits in small cages and preventing them from expressing their natural behaviours is as far away from ‘quality’ as can be.

European citizens have been calling for an End to the Cage Age for rabbits. Over 600,000 signatures were delivered to the Dutch presidency and several EU ministers, in anticipation of the Report in May. While the Report on the Protection of Rabbits moves through the Parliament, it will be interesting to see the response from producers and policy makers alike.

Will the rabbit sector seize the opportunity to get rid of outdated and inhumane practices and move to the 21st century? Will Members of the European Parliament recognize the need to grant improved housing systems and higher welfare standards to the 330 million rabbits raised for meat annually? Will the EU Commission be able to pride itself on the ‘quality’ of EU products when it continues to hide its head in the sand and denies the calls of citizens for acceptable farming standards for animals?

We are eagerly awaiting to see their reactions.

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