As yet another heatwave is causing sizzling temperatures throughout Europe and we are advised to take shelter inside our homes, nothing has changed for the billions of live animals that are being shipped alive across the continent and beyond, by land and sea.
There’s no mercy, no respite for living beings destined for slaughter when it comes to ensuring that this lucrative business can continue.
Intense heatwaves now occur every summer in Europe, and yet apparently there is no way to suspend live animal transport, not even when outside temperatures reach 40० C.
Over the years, we saw the publication of hundreds of pages of official guidelines and letters from the European Commission to Member States reminding them of their responsibility to protect animal welfare during transport when temperatures are extreme. Yet the suffering and the perfectly avoidable losses of animal lives continue, year after year. The reason being that the machine that churns animals for export cannot remain idle.
Live animal transport is the perfect demonstration that something is seriously wrong with the way in which the European Union enforces its animal welfare rules. Even if enforcement is not the only issue here, indeed the Regulation itself would benefit from a thorough science based revision, it’s nevertheless lacking on several fronts.
Much as we Europeans like to pride ourselves on our supposedly advanced animal welfare legislation, in times like these it is apparent that this leadership is only on paper. Eurogroup for Animals, the organisation I have the honour to lead, was founded 42 years ago precisely to put an end to long-distance animal transport.
It is somehow ironic, or perhaps tragic, that today the European Union is still the biggest exporter and transporter of live animals on the planet. True, there’s been progress made on animal welfare legislation in other domains, for instance the bans on sow stalls, veal crates, and conventional battery cages for laying hens. All steps in the right direction, albeit far from representing ideal solutions. But when I think about live animal transport, I cannot but realise that we seem to be stuck in a rut, even if the solutions seem so obvious.
Time and again, in the wake of numerous animal welfare tragedies, citizens have raised their voice against live animal transport. The 8 hours campaign, Stop the trucks, and more recently No Animal Left Behind, managed to collect over 1 million signatures asking the European Commission to more strictly regulate this trade.
Innumerable letters and painstakingly detailed reports have reached MEPs and various Commissioners, documenting over many years the systematic violations of EU legislation, the insufficient controls, and the severe animal suffering caused by live animal transport.
Frustrated by the lack of meaningful action, the European Parliament launched a dedicated committee of inquiry (ANIT), the first on animal welfare, to investigate live transport, whose final Recommendations were presented last January.
Much as it may seem that all this has fallen onto deaf ears, there is still room for hope. During the recent Agriculture and Fisheries Council, Member States stepped up their game and called for a significant reform of the transport regulation.
The so-called Vught alliance (Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden) presented an important information paper, which won the support of eight more Member States. The paper calls, among other things, for a maximum transport time of 8 hours for animals going to slaughter, restricted journey times for unweaned animals (i.e. animals that are still very young and would normally be suckling from their mothers), and a ban on certain types of long-distance live exports.
Importantly, the Vught countries reinstate a very important science-based principle: the European Union should strive to keep journey times as short as possible and the ultimate goal should be to transport meat, carcasses and breeding materials instead of live animals. This is what we should ultimately aim for, and these countries should be applauded for their leadership and vision.
In order for this transition to happen, we need to gradually transform the meat production’s logistics and live animal transport needs to become economically unsustainable. The logical question is: are we ready for this? During a workshop hosted by the Dutch government, a representative of the mobile slaughter sector admitted that, with the appropriate legislative and financial support in place, most animals reared in the EU could be slaughtered on farm. The technology is available, and the old argument that Third countries do not have sufficient refrigeration infrastructure does not hold water as many are now already accepting meat and carcasses (e.g. Jordan).
Moving away from live animal transport is feasible and a matter of vision and of political courage. It is a choice, and one that fits perfectly with the ambitions of the Farm to Fork strategy in terms of animal welfare and environmental sustainability of food production. In the words of Laurence J.Peter, "Nothing much happens until the status quo becomes more painful than change."
Shifting from live animal transport to trade in meat and breeding materials will hurt short-term economic interests, and we know all too well that these interests are extremely powerful. This is the reason why so little has changed in decades. But now is the time to set things in motion, because it is the right thing to do. Such is the nature of progress.
I firmly believe that transformative change can only happen in the public policy arena. If a maximum duration of 8 hours for adult bovine, ovine and pigs and 4 hours for rabbits and poultry were adopted, market dynamics that currently favour live animal transport would automatically shift. Such a transition could be supported by mandatory method of production labelling as well as CAP subsidies.
All eyes are now on the European Commission. There is no time for compromises, no time to come up once again with temporary fixes to appease the collective conscience, no time for new promises of a bit of extra space for the animals, or better enforcement. This Commission has a once in a lifetime opportunity: making sure that my newborn son will be able to say when he has grown up: live animal transport? What a horrific practice from a dark past.