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Is the EU sacrificing animal welfare to tackle the cost of living crisis?

A dairy cow is pictured in a farm on March 11, 2015 in Abbiategrasso, near Milan.
A dairy cow is pictured in a farm on March 11, 2015 in Abbiategrasso, near Milan. Copyright OLIVIER MORIN/OLIVIER MORIN
Copyright OLIVIER MORIN/OLIVIER MORIN
By Doloresz Katanich
Published on Updated
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Long-awaited EU animal welfare proposals are falling through without an official explanation. Some reports suspect that economic objectives are at play.

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A raft of highly-anticipated EU animal welfare proposals are overdue, and it seems that the European Commission will fall short on its commitments for the long-promised legislative reforms.

Brussels appears to be handling the matter discreetly behind closed doors, following leaks that revealed the proposals could be scrapped in an effort to tackle the high food prices and inflation gripping the continent.

Animal welfare organisations have accused policy makers of a U-turn and seem to be at loss in understanding what is happening after the Commission committed to ‘End the Cage Age’ years ago.

The End the Cage Age was a citizens’ initiative, signed by almost 1.4 million people in 2020.

It prompted the Commission to commit to proposing legislation to phase out the use of cage systems for animals such as hens, rabbits and ducks by the end of 2023.

The legislative framework was also meant to include a stop to the practice of slaughtering day-old chicks, and the sale and production of fur, as well as shortening the transport of live animals. 

The deafening silence of the European Commission

As the moment of truth approached, news reports began to cast doubts about the fate of the legislation.

The topic was also missing from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s State of The Union speech, which was seen as an opportunity for the president to sum up what her administration had left to do before the European elections next year.

This didn’t escape the attention of animal welfare NGOs.

Euronews reached out to the European Commission but received no response as of this article's publication.

Finally, at a hearing in the European Parliament on Tuesday, European Commission Executive Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, nominated to oversee the European Green Deal, raised many eyebrows when he couldn’t commit to a deadline of the animal welfare proposals in question.

The vice-president, however, kept repeating that the animal welfare proposals remain a priority for the upcoming months.

The following day, on World Animal Day, Vice-President Šefčovič wrote to MEPs indicating that the European Commission will present its proposal to protect animals while they are transported, in December 2023.

He did not commit to any deadline concerning the rest of the animal welfare issues, however, noting that the Commission will continue working on the remaining proposals.

Animal welfare organisations, including FOUR PAWS International and Compassion in World Farming, immediately reacted saying that the European Commission is not delivering what it had promised.

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Compassion in World Farming said that the “Commission slaps democracy in the face, and signals GAME OVER for EU animal welfare revolution”.

“The Commission’s U-turn regarding the much-touted animal welfare reform is a failure for democracy and the European project,“ said Olga Kikou, European Affairs Manager at Compassion in World Farming. 

Could inflation be the reason for abandoning animal welfare?

The European Commission has yet to communicate any clear reasons why it has abandoned the proposals, but media reports suggest that there are fears that the animal welfare amendments could fuel food inflation further.

The Financial Times (FT) reported on a draft impact assessment by the Commission, that showed how farmers' costs could surge by an average of 15%, potentially leading to higher consumer prices and an increase in imports.

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Improving the housing of broiler chickens could add one cent to the price of an egg, according to the draft assessment.

In its report, the FT asked the EU farmer's group Copa-Cogeca for its opinion on the proposals, which said it was in favour of many of the suggested changes as long as they came with financial aid and as long as imported meat had the same standards as that in Europe.

Despite these fears, while still high, food inflation has actually started slowing down in recent months, according to Eurostat, the EU’s statistics office.

Furthermore, the proposals would take years to be signed into the statute books and put into practice, making the current food inflation an even less significant factor.

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FOUR PAWS’s director of European policy, Joe Moran, told Euronews that the proposals remain proposals until they are adopted. 

“We’re looking at 2028, 2027, then there would have to be an implementation period before they actually apply,” he said.

The transition periods for such measures often take 10 to 15 years.

“So to not go ahead with something now because of costs that could be spread over 20 years would, in my view, be a bit like someone cancelling their summer holiday in 10 years time because they've looked online and it's raining at their destination today,” Moran said.” It literally doesn't make any sense at all. It's bonkers.”

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The director shared his suspicion that scrapping the plans may be “all about optics” in the light of the European Commission’s efforts to secure the new EU-Mercosur trade deal involving Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, before the end of this year.

The impact of the planned animal welfare proposals to international trade relations

In April, 2023 a leaked impact assessment showed that the trading partners most affected by the higher standards were expected to be Brazil and Thailand in the case of poultry meat, and Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in the case of beef.

Moran said the European Commission thinks it would be “incredibly dangerous” for the legislative package to come to light during the course of the talks, as it could jeopardise a deal if South American imports were required to meet the same high standards.

“They see this as a kind of straw that might break the proverbial camel's back,” he said.

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Moran added that to his knowledge, the originally planned proposals were ready to move to the inter-service consultation stage, to then be ultimately published within weeks. He said he cannot understand why, at this stage, they cannot be released to the public.

“A proposal is only a proposal. [...] We're asking them simply to put these texts in the public domain in front of MEPs, in front of member states,” said Moran. “They could then be amended. They can be changed. But at least discussions like this should happen in daylight in a democracy. I don't believe that they should be happening behind closed doors.“

What’s at stake?

The director called attention to the pressing issues that the proposals were supposed to address, such as ending piglet castration, preventing the separation of calves from their mothers right after birth, and stopping chickens from growing at such rates that essentially they can't stand up because they can't their legs can't support their own weight.

The European Food Safety Authority notes that farmed animals’ welfare is directly connected to the safety of the food chain, and that the relationship between animal welfare, animal health, and food-borne diseases is tight, with stress factors and poor welfare leading to increased susceptibility to transmissible diseases among animals.

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It’s worth remembering that there is no serious concern about food safety in the European Union as the bloc has the highest standards of animal welfare in the world already.

While acknowledging that the EU is a leader in many respects, Moran emphasised that other parts of the world better regulate certain aspects of animal welfare, such as banning live exports, even if their overall welfare regulation pales in comparison to Europe’s.

“If we want the EU to continue to be the world's leader in animal welfare, we need these proposals now,” he said.

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