In a special audit report on animal welfare the European Court of Auditors (ECA) warned last week against gaps in the implementation of EU animal welfare policies in the member states. “Animal welfare is an important issue for EU citizens,” said Janusz Wojciechowski, the ECA Member responsible for the report, on Wednesday (14 November). “The European Commission has been proactive in addressing stakeholders’ concerns, but we still need to close the gap between the ambitious goals and practical implementation.”
Commenting on the report, Olga Kikou, Head of Compassion in World Farming EU, said that “Europe is falling behind.”
“By flouting EU animal welfare rules, economic actors betray the trust of EU citizens. It’s a pity that EU countries don’t do more to ensure that these very economic actors follow the rules,” she added. “The day-to-day reality for animals is far away from what’s in the books.”
Guidelines on how animals are to be transported and slaughtered and on the welfare of pigs have been issued by the European Commission, but there are still serious issues on how they are implemented on the ground.
On paper the EU has some of the world’s highest animal welfare standards, which include rules on the rearing, transport and slaughter of farm animals. The common agricultural policy (CAP) also links farm payments to minimum levels of animal welfare.
To examine how the welfare of farm animals is checked and the overall implementation of the EU animal welfare strategy, the auditors visited five Member States: Germany, France, Italy, Poland and Romania.
Weaknesses persist in some areas, say the auditors, particularly in relation to the routine cutting of pig tails to reduce tail-biting, the lack of compliance with rules on long-distance transport and the transport of unfit animals, and the use of stunning procedures at slaughter.
Member States’ official control systems are a key factor. The auditors found good practice, particularly regarding the consistency of official inspections, but also saw a need to focus on areas and business operators with a higher risk of non-compliance.
The largest direct source of EU funding for animal welfare activities is the rural development measure “animal welfare payments”, which provides support for high standards of animal husbandry going beyond the relevant mandatory standards.
For the 2014-2020 period, 18 Member States allocated €1.5 billion to this measure, with Romania receiving far more aid than any other member state. Asked by the Brussels Times about the effectiveness of the measure, the audit team replied that it saw good examples of actions that are beneficial for animals.
However, it is difficult to draw conclusions on the measure’s effectiveness, as there are no specific EU-level monitoring indicators to measure the improvement in animal welfare conditions.
“We believe that cost-effectiveness can be improved by ensuring that the beneficiary farms respect all the minimum animal welfare requirements and that the EU support has an incentive effect and is not granted for practices that are already applied on the farm,” the audit team replied
Another issue concerns the EU derogation from stunning in case of religious slaughter taking place in slaughterhouses. The auditors write that the legal basis allows for different practices across the Member States.
“Due to the lack of sufficient information on the use of the derogation, we cannot conclude on whether in some Member States the derogation is applied also for slaughter that is not prescribed by religious rites,” says the audit team. “But we noted that the Commission had already identified that the derogation was sometimes excessively used.”
The audit team told the Brussels Times that it did not find examples where Member States did not approve the use of derogation where it should have been applied. Some Member States not included in the audit sample have banned slaughter without stunning.
The EU livestock sector represents 45 % of total agricultural activity, generates an output of €168 billion annually and provides around 4 million jobs. Linked sectors (milk and meat processing, livestock feed) have an annual turnover of approximately €400 billion. The consistent application of animal welfare standards helps to level the playing field in these sectors.
According to a European Parliament study, there are an estimated 4.5 billion chickens, egg-laying hens and turkeys in the EU, and 330 million cattle, pigs, goats and sheep. Based on information from an animal welfare organisation, an estimated 0.25 million horses are slaughtered annually for meat.
The concept of animal welfare is enshrined in Article 13 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), which recognises animals as sentient beings.
The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) has provided the following definition of good animal welfare: “An animal is in a good state of welfare, if it is healthy, comfortable, well-nourished, safe, able to express innate [natural] behaviour, and if it is not suffering from unpleasant states such as pain, fear and distress.”
According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), food safety is indirectly affected by the welfare of farmed animals, due to the close links between animal welfare, animal health and food-borne diseases. Poor welfare can lead to increased susceptibility to disease and higher mortality.
There is widespread evidence that meat quality is influenced by animal welfare. Good treatment on the farm, during transport and during pre-slaughter handling is important, because the meat from stressed and injured animals can have a lower value.