European Union. Photo: Unsplash
History and review of animal welfare legislation in the european union
The European Union has been working for more than 40 years to improve the quality of life of farm animals.
Animals on a factory farm. Foto: Jo-Anne McArthur
Itziar García Haro,
June 28 2022
The term animal welfare refers to the fundamental physiological and psychological needs of animals for positive experiences.
The European Union (EU) is the jurisdiction which has published the most extensive regulations regarding the welfare of farm animals worldwide, yet it is also one of the world's leading powers in intensive animal farming, a method of factory farming which is highly detrimental to animals, sustainability, and food safety. In recent years, the number of animals reared for food purposes in the EU has averaged 11 billion a year.
EU institutions, such as the European Commission and the European Parliament among others, as well as the livestock industry, use a narrative full of positivism that creates the impression that EU animal welfare laws have been driven by a genuine interest in animal welfare. The official news page of the European Parliament, states the following:
"The European Union is the jurisdiction in the world that has published the most comprehensive standards for farm animal welfare. But on the other hand, it is also one of the major powers in intensive livestock farming"
However, the reality of farm animal welfare regulation is that it has not been driven by animal welfare considerations. Harmonization of practices in intensive livestock farming helps ensure a level playing field in the EU, as can be seen in Council Directive 98/58/EC which states: “Whereas differences which may distort the conditions of competition are contrary to the proper functioning of the market organization for animals” (1).
Countries that make up the EU
Although it touts that regulations are in place for the good of the animals, in reality the quality of life of animals in the EU is regulated not with the wellbeing of the animals in mind, but because it is necessary that all EU countries have similar industrial parameters.
End of the cage age for farm animals
Given that animal welfare legislation has a commercial focus, the role of non-profit organizations dedicated to animal welfare has been decisive in advancing measures that truly protect animals. Initiatives such as End the Cage Age are being promoted which, through a European Citizens' Initiative, 1.4 million signatures were obtained throughout the EU, calling for the end of cages for animals destined for consumption. In this context, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favor of legislation to ban cages, and the European Commission was urged to legislate on the issue.
“Given that animal welfare legislation is market-driven, the role of non-profit animal welfare organizations has been instrumental in moving towards measures that truly protect animals”
In parallel, with the launch of the European Green Deal in December 2019, the European Commission presented a revised version of the legislation for animal welfare, an important step towards better regulatory protection. The main text of the EU Constitutional Treaty has already been revised to recognize animal sentience, and this revision is therefore an unprecedented opportunity to ensure that EU legislation safeguards animal welfare, food safety and the sustainability of the food system.
The start of animal welfare in the european union
Between 1968 and 1979, the Council of Europe adopted three conventions on the protection of farm animals:
European Convention for the Protection of Animals during International Transport (2).
European Convention for the Protection of Animals kept for Farming Purposes (3).
European Convention for the Protection of Animals for Slaughter (4).
Although these texts cover fundamental concepts for animal welfare, the standards established in the Council of Europe Conventions are quite general. Nevertheless, the problem of intensive livestock farming is mentioned in the preamble of the European Convention for the Protection of Animals kept for Farming Purposes (1976), which states: “The member states of the Council of Europe signatories to this Convention, consider that it is desirable to adopt common provisions for the protection of animals kept for farming purposes, especially in modern intensive livestock farming systems (...)”.
These Conventions in Council Directive 98/58/EC in 1998 formed the basis for the establishment of general standards for the protection of animals of all species bred for the production of food, wool, fur or leather or for other farming purposes and include fish, reptiles and amphibians. The standards included in this Directive are based on the so-called “five freedoms”5, an animal welfare assessment model with a significant shortcoming compared to current scientific knowledge.
We can find an example of the lack of effectiveness of the five freedoms model in the “freedom from hunger”, which ignores the situation of animals that are forcibly overfed for faster fattening. From this example it is apparent that the five freedoms, as well as Directive 98/58/EC, do not specify concrete restrictions for various poor animal welfare practices commonly used and legitimized in macro-farms.
"The so-called "five freedoms", an animal welfare assessment model with a significant shortcoming with respect to current scientific knowledge”
Although the five freedoms do refer to the prohibition of causing stress and fear, they do not specify what acts provoke these effects, thus creating an imprecision that gives room for poor animal welfare practices which can reach the point of cruelty to animals.
It is apparent that the five freedoms model, which is the model referenced in all existing legislation, lacks effectiveness. Numerous scientific studies, and the opinion of the public itself (as seen in the European Citizens' Initiative End The Cage Age), highlight the need for legislation based on updated scientific framework on animal welfare.
Hens, among other species, will no longer live in cages as of 2027
It is the shortcomings in the five freedoms model that prompted the animal welfare scientific community to present an alternative model in 1994: the five domains model, which reflects the fundamental physiological needs of animals to undergo positive experiences. The European Commission announced in 2021 the intention to use the five domains model as a guide for its proposal for European legislation on animal welfare.
Vagueness, inaccuracy and lack of animal welfare
A European Treaty is a binding agreement between the EU member countries. It sets out the objectives of the EU, the rules applicable to its institutions, the way decisions are made and the relationship between the Union and its member countries.
Animals were mentioned in both the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 and in a protocol to the Amsterdam Treaty in 1997. But it was not until the Lisbon Treaty in 2007 that animals were categorized as sentient beings (although they were also still labeled as products of agriculture).
Although this change was made in the primary law text of the Lisbon Treaty, it did not lead to anything new in the wording of the European regulation or the various directives. Thus, there were still shortcomings in EU legislation on farm animal welfare.
Among these shortcomings we find, for example, a limited scope at the level of species covered by the law. While Directive 98/58/EC concerning the protection of animals kept for farming purposes covers “any animal (including fish, reptiles or amphibians) bred or kept for the production of food, wool, fur or for other agricultural purposes”, the same Directive excludes invertebrate animals, such as cephalopods, from its scope.
Another major deficiency found in both the regulation and the directives is the generalized wording. In the absence of specific guidelines to promote animal welfare, there is room for interpretation and, as a consequence, these laws have had little or no effect on animal protection.
In EU legislation on farm animal welfare we find expressions such as “unnecessary suffering” and adjectives such as “appropriate”, “adequate”, or “comfortable”. But none of these expressions are supported by quantifiable and measurable standards. As a result, many of the provisions of EU farm animal welfare legislation are more like guidelines (optional rules that do not have to be complied with) than standards.
All these points, which include ambiguity, imprecision and unambitious animal welfare objectives, call for a thorough revision of European legislation on the protection of animals intended for human consumption.
Directive 98/58/EC covers fish, but excludes invertebrates such as cephalopods.
Revision of the legislation
Because EU legislation is drafted in general terms and sets targets rather than quantifiable standards, member states have implemented EU rules unevenly at the national level. Some member states have imposed strict national rules for the benefit of animals, while other countries have opted to only apply the minimum standards of EU legislation. Austria, Germany, Luxembourg, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have banned the use of cages for laying hens while countries such as France and Spain have chosen not to go beyond EU legislation, thus still allowing the use of cages.
“Ambiguity, vagueness and unambitious animal welfare objectives create the need for a thorough revision of the European legislation on the protection of food animals”
These non-unified national regulations at EU level have resulted in a fragmentation of production standards, putting the most advanced countries in terms of farm animal welfare at a disadvantage compared to member states whose national legislation does not go beyond the EU minimum standards. In addition, we have seen how current EU animal welfare laws are either outdated or unfit. Time and again, investigative reporting highlights the failure of EU member states to enforce compliance. Even when the law is followed, animals suffer unnecessarily.
A new opportunity to raise the welfare standards of farm animals
With the Farm to Fork strategy, the European Commission announced on May 20, 2020, that it will review animal welfare legislation to adapt it to the latest scientific evidence. Furthermore, the revision will broaden its scope, facilitate compliance and ultimately ensure a higher level of animal welfare.
“The European Commission announced in 2020 that it will review animal welfare legislation to bring it in line with the latest scientific evidence”
The Commission plans to revise both the directive on the protection of animals kept for farming purposes and the four directives laying down minimum standards for the protection of laying hens, broilers, pigs and calves. It also plans to revise the regulation on the protection of animals during transport and at the time of slaughter.
To this end, it conducted a public consultation in October 2021. Some of the conclusions were the following:
The majority agreed that the review is necessary, that species are not equally protected and that more information is needed, and that there should be improved and easier enforcement.
Most supported the inclusion of more species in the legislation.
There was majority support for the elimination of caging.
Regarding transport, there was strong support for limiting maximum travel times, banning live animal exports and banning the transport of unweaned calves.
There was majority support for an animal welfare label that would include slaughter and transport.
In addition, the Commission has instructed the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to prepare scientific reports on animal welfare in intensive livestock farming.
The Commission has published that both the results of the public consultation and the work being carried out by EFSA will be decisive in order to begin drafting the proposal between the last four months of this year and next year (6).
This is a crucial time for the welfare of food animals in Europe. And as such, we are taking this opportunity to promote the greatest number of legislative developments in the European Union. Through different actions such as, for example, Equalia's participation in public consultations, we aim to achieve animal welfare standards that are a fundamental part of the sustainability of the food system.
Itziar García Haro
Audiovisual and digital communicator - Digital content creator at Equalia
1 Directiva 98/58/CE del Consejo de 20 de julio de 1998 relativa a la protección de los animales en las explotaciones ganaderas.
2 Consejo de Europa, Convenio Europeo para la Protección de Animales Durante el Transporte, 6 de noviembre, 2003, E.T.S. 193.
3 Consejo de Europa, Convenio Europeo sobre la Protección de los Animales en las Explotaciones para Fines de Cría, 10 de marzo, 1976, E.T.S. 87.
4 Consejo de Europa, Convenio Europeo sobre la Protección en el Sacrificio de Animales, 10 de mayo, 1979, E.T.S. 102.
5 Comisión Europea, «Animal Welfare«, https://ec.europa.eu/food/animals/animal-welfare_en (visitado en junio del 2022).
6 Comisión Europea, «Revision of the animal welfare legislation», https://ec.europa.eu/food/animals/animal-welfare/evaluations-and-impact-assessment/revision-animal-welfare-legislation_en (visitado en junio del 2022)
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