ANALYSIS - The European Parliament has voted for animal welfare rules to be better enforced, existing loopholes closed and offenders punished, writes Chris Harris.
The MEPs said this action has to be taken not least because it also protects human health, by preventing the spread of animal-related diseases and antimicrobial resistance.
The new action that follows a strident condemnation of the lax implementation of regulations from the Swedish MEP Marit Paulsen comes in a non-binding resolution passed by a show of hands this week.
The resolution says today's disparate animal welfare rules should be pulled together in a single EU-wide animal welfare law so as to improve compliance and ensure a level playing field for all EU farmers. Furthermore, new rules should cover all farmed animals, including dairy cows, plus stray cats and dogs and other domestic pets, which are currently not protected by any EU law, it adds.
"The most important point in this proposal is the details of the broad, science-based general animal welfare framework law, reflecting the link between animal and public health. We must define jointly what we mean by good animal husbandry and determine clearly who is responsible for the animals. It is a matter of fairness, both to animals and producers across Europe", said Marit Paulsen (Pictured), who drafted the resolution in response to the Commission's Animal Welfare Strategy for 2012-2015, tabled in January 2012.
Previously, Marit Paulsen had said that there was not enough pressure on member states to apply EU rules on animal welfare.
"We're certainly not the best in class. But I would say about a third are doing ok. Then you have a big mid-section where it varies greatly from farm to farm, but where the entire system is unfortunately supported by antibiotics. Now only Sweden and Denmark keep precise records on antibiotic use, something which has a great impact on public health," she said.
"Below that, you have member states which haven't got a clue what we're talking about. This is why we are now trying to build a foundation. At the moment, we just have a bunch of scattered rules. We need a common definition: what is animal welfare? Then we build the directives on that.
"Such a definition could be decisive as free trade becomes increasingly important in agriculture and with the US, Canada and Australia currently at the forefront of the animal welfare debate."
She said that with the laying hen directive most states had 12 years to implement it - the newer stated had eight years but everyone knew it was coming in and the European Commission and Parliament were tied to take action until it actually came into force. She said that more powers were needed to stop countries simply ignoring directives.
Marit Paulsen also indicated that consumers, who claim to want better welfare but shop on price also need to be educated.
"Only about 15-20 per cent actually shop the way they say they do. People still feel they've got themselves a bargain when they find pork tenderloin at the supermarket for three euros. But what kind of life do they think that pig had - at that price?" she said.
Better Controls and Tough Sanctions
The MEPs said that since animal welfare rules are still being broken, they want member states to employ more and properly trained animal welfare inspectors and the EU Food and Veterinary Office to have more resources.
They said that proper penalties must be imposed whenever the rules are breached,and ample information provided on how to remedy defects, they stress.
To avoid long delays in putting the new rules into effect, as happened with the laying hens directive, the resolution calls for an "early intervention" system to enable the European Commission to check at intervals whether member states can meet the deadline.
In response to complaints by EU citizens, MEPs ask the Commission to consider creating a "slaughter without stunning" label for meat to help consumers to make more informed choices.
Trade with Third Countries
Parliament stresses that equivalent welfare standards should apply to all imported animals and products to ensure a level-playing field for EU farmers and comparable quality standards for EU consumers.
Animal welfare groups and farming organisations in most countries will be applauding the move, but still questioning whether it will actually mean anything and whether it will improve welfare and produce an even-handed approach.
And countries who export to the EU will also be questioning whether demands to meet EU welfare measures will be seen as trade distorting barriers. If they are then action in the World Trade Organisations disputes panel could easily follow.