Live animal transport: Will the European Parliament listen to the voices of EU citizens?

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Live animal transport: Will the European Parliament listen to the voices of EU citizens?

We’ve seen the harrowing images innumerable times over the past several years. Dairy calves, still needing to be nursed, transported for thousands of kilometres, bellowing wide-eyed out of hunger and exhaustion. Kicked around by untrained and tired operators as if they weren’t living beings.

Bulls and cows transported in the height of the summer months, collapsing and dying of dehydration on trucks stuck at the borders with non-European countries. Tens of thousands of sheep drowned in a Romanian harbour as the rusty vessel that was carrying them sank.

The list is almost endless. The Elbeik, Karim Allah, and the MV Queen Hind. Thousands of animals that, once loaded on trucks or vessels, appear to literally become nobody’s responsibility. All it takes is a botched piece of paperwork, technical problems, or the suspicion of a disease outbreak, and the system fails the animals.

Animal transports need to be limited and scaled down

There’s no contingency plan for these beings, the “expendables” of the lucrative European live animal export business. For decades, citizens and NGOs have called for better regulation of this trade: journey durations need to be reduced and adapted to the species; vulnerable animals must not be transported; meat/carcasses and genetic material shall be exported instead of live animals; controls need to be more systematic and sanctions tougher.

Our campaigns No Animal Left Behind this year and StopTheTrucks in 2017 and the 8-hours campaign in 2011, showed beyond doubt that European citizens want this trade to be seriously scaled down and its rules revised.

More recently, the European Parliament produced an Implementation Report that led to the creation of the first ever Committee of Inquiry on the protection of animals during transport, the ANIT Committee.

Only four parliamentary Committees of Inquiry were ever launched, of which this is the only one on animal welfare. This goes to show that addressing the problems caused by this trade is by now considered of vital importance for the EU to maintain its role as world leader in driving better legislation on animal welfare.

And there’s more: in light of the potential risk posed by live animal transport for spreading antimicrobial resistant bacteria (a risk the European Food Safety Authority is currently assessing), reducing, replacing and refining this trade is also a matter of One Health.

We’ve seen time and again that official warnings and recommendations to respect the current Transport Regulation have had limited or no impact. We need decisive action and we need it before the next crisis. Half measures won’t cut it.

It’s not surprising that all eyes were on the ANIT Committee last week, on the occasion of their vote on the conclusions and recommendations adopted after 18 months of fact-finding.

The ANIT’s draft Report and Recommendations acknowledge the lack of comprehensive species- and category specific provisions and call for significant refinements in the transport of poultry as well as unweaned, end-of-career and pregnant animals.

The missing recommendations in the report

However, the recommendations that are not included speak volumes: the call for 8 hours journey time limit only refers to road transport for animals destined to slaughter, and there is no call to end the extra-EU live animal export.

Live exports to third countries have been shown, throughout the years, to cause some of the most severe animal welfare problems, not least because of the lack of oversight once the borders are crossed.

Yet it’s crystal clear that the only way to prevent these problems is by replacing live exports with the export of meat, carcasses and genetic material. Although not strongly worded, this recommendation is included in the ANIT Committee’s draft Report. Is it feasible? We firmly believe it is. It is also urgent and necessary, and it can no longer be postponed.

Given the current economic value of the live animal trade, it will be important that the European Commission drafts a strategy on the transition away from live transport while also devoting financial incentives to support all operators involved, in the spirit of the Farm to Fork strategy’s goal to build sustainable food systems.

This is a matter of avoiding “unnecessary suffering” on an immense scale. It is a matter of recognising that the bar of what is ethically acceptable has shifted. Ultimately, moving away from the live animal trade is a matter of advancing civilisation.

The ANIT work is a step in that direction and we’re grateful to the Committee members for their effort. With the January vote in plenary, the European Parliament has a golden opportunity to go further and strengthen their Recommendations, finally making the voices of millions of EU citizens weigh in.

We call on them to ensure that those voices are not lost in the maze of political compromise.

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