EU animal welfare strategy lacks ambition

The new EU strategy on animal welfare, announced yesterday (19 January) has met with mixed reviews from the meat and farming organisations. Although tentatively welcomed by some, many feel it does not go far enough to address the problems in enforcing existing animal welfare legislation and also maintaining competitiveness. 

The new four-year EU strategy aims to improve welfare standards, by enhancing compliance with existing laws and laying down a timeline of actions that will be gradually introduced between 2012 and 2015. It recognised that pan-European compliance was difficult, due to the diversity across member states, and said that a more flexible approach could achieve more sustainable results than the current ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.

The EU health and consumer policy commissioner John Dalli has said the new strategy will permit an element of flexibility, which will allow operators to attain the necessary welfare standards via different routes. The strategy also includes considering a proposal to simplify EU legislation in 2014, creating a tool to improve the transparency of animal welfare claims and increase training among people who handle animals.

NFU vice-president Gwyn Jones said: “This is a positive step by the Commission, but the devil will be in detail – something which is lacking at this stage. Existing rules must be correctly implemented and enforced, and this should always be done in preference to creating new legislation or additional bureaucracy. I am particularly pleased, therefore, that one of the main themes of the strategy is the development of a simpler EU legislative framework for animal welfare.
“The strategy also proposes the use of ‘science-based’ welfare indicators, which have the potential to improve compliance across all member states – this is a positive aim for the EU, but it is important that the introduction of these indicators should not carry an extra cost burden for our UK farmers or threaten the high standards of animal welfare that are already met through existing voluntary schemes, such as Red Tractor.”

Red Tractor Assurance said the strategy embraced a number of principles that the UK industry and its assurance schemes have been working on for many years, particularly with regard to reinforcing compliance with proper standards, improving consumer information and assessing the welfare of the animals, rather than just the environment and training.

David Clarke, CEO of Red Tractor Assurance, said: “In most areas, the strategy is merely reflecting current practice under UK assurance.

“There is much less of an information gap in the UK than in many other parts of the EU and the Red Tractor scheme plays a key part in informing consumers, through clear unambiguous labelling.
“The strategy launched today is simply an outline of top-level principles. A considerable amount of work will be needed in the coming weeks, months and probably even years to flesh it out before we can properly judge its implications and impact.
The RSPCA agreed that although it contained some promising features, overall the strategy does not go far enough and falls short in delivering long-overdue progress on welfare issues.

David Bowles, the RSPCA’s director of communications, said: “No reference is made as to how the Commission will overcome the huge challenges to enforce EU wide bans on intensive systems such as the barren battery cage or the upcoming ban on sow stalls.

“If the EU really wants to make a difference to animal welfare in the EU in the next five years it needs a strategy that deals with all animals, and ensures laws are effective and not just pieces of paper. It needs a strategy which recognises the links between good animal welfare, good animal health and improving the environment.”

Peter Stevenson, chief policy advisor at Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) said: “This new strategy is welcome in its commitment to improving animal welfare in the EU.  However, it has some disappointing omissions that represent a lost opportunity to improve conditions for Europe’s farm animals.
“Consumers will benefit from the focus on transparency and labelling of their food, especially as regards to knowing whether animals have been stunned before slaughter, as increasing numbers of people want to know how the animals that produced their meat were killed.”

Consumer research from IGD has revealed that 47% of shoppers say animal welfare is extremely or very important when choosing what products to buy, rising to 53% among female shoppers, while 45% of shoppers claim to have purchased free-range or high animal welfare products in the last month, rising to 51% among ABC1 shoppers. Thirty per cent of shoppers asked said they would buy more in the next 12 months, although among 18- to 35-year-olds, this figure rose to 35%.

Forty-seven per cent of shoppers said they were willing to pay extra for free-range and other products produced to high animal welfare standards, rising to 52% among ABC1 shoppers, female shoppers (55%) and 55- to 64-year-olds (57%).

IGD consumer research polls around 1,000 shoppers every month to provide insight on their attitudes, motivators and barriers to food and grocery shopping, as well as asking future purchasing plans.