EU Animal Welfare Regulations: Imprecise Language Leads to Mixed Interpretations

DENMARK - In July of this year, the European Commission was accused of turning a blind eye to bad animal transport standards in member states. The European Parliament’s Intergroup on the Conservation and Welfare of Animals claimed the consistent failure of states to enforce animal welfare transport regulations needs more action. Of particular concern were the export of live animals to Turkey, Africa and the Middle East, writes Melanie Epp, for ThePigSite.
calendar icon 26 November 2015
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While there’s no disputing that live animal transport needs more regulation, some infractions could be due to the Commission’s use of ‘unspecific language.’ With a focus on live sow transports, Mette Herskin, senior researcher in the Department of Animal Science, Behaviour and Stress Biology at Aarhus University in Denmark, spoke at length about the problem with imprecise language at this year’s Improving Pig Welfare conference in Copenhagen.

Imprecise language leads to mixed interpretations

According to Herskin, “unspecific language” leads to “loose interpretations,” a problem she sees all too often in her work at Aarhus University. She points to Annex 1 in the technical rules on transport. For instance, in chapter one, where fitness for transport is described, it says first that animals that are injured or present physiological weakness or pathological processes are not considered fit. “Then if you look at point number 3, it says: “However, sick or injured animals may be considered fit for transport if they are…. And then there’s a list of things,” said Herskin.

One of those things is “slightly injured or ill.”

“But how do you quantify slightly?” asked Herskin. “Nobody knows. That will depend very much on the eyes that are watching the animal.”

In commercial situations, she continued, animals are crowded together, which makes it difficult to make such evaluations, and handlers are limited by time.

The next item on the list says that transport should not cause additional suffering. While that could be investigated, Herskin says she’s not aware of any data that has looked at whether animals with health issues become worse during transport. “There is, in my opinion, a big gap in knowledge here, because we don’t know,” she said.

In Denmark, when animals arrive in poor condition, the farmer and/or driver receive a fine. The problem is, no one really know what the animal looked like when it left the farm.

“The farmer might say that it was perfectly fine on the farm, but nobody knows whether he’s right or not,” she said. “He might be right.”
Currently, a Danish PhD student is looking at lameness scores in pigs before and after transport. While she has only evaluated around 100 pigs on trips of less than eight hours, she has found that lameness scores do increase during transport. “This is just preliminary data, but we’ll look into it more when we have the full data set,” said Herskin.

The data should be available as early as 2017.

The regulations also state that animals must be “fit for the intended journey.” For instance, the law says that if the animal is unable to move independently it is considered unfit. But there could be many other situations where animals could be considered unfit, but it’s not specified. Even more problematic is the fact that it’s interpreted differently from country to country.

“Because this rule is superficial, each country has had to interpret it in their own way – and they definitely do – for the good or the bad for the animal and the farmer,” said Herskin.

Currently, Aarhus University is involved in another research project. This one looks closely at what actually happens during transport. Are sows given the space they need? Do they fight? Are they injured? How long are they left on the transport vehicle without rest? While the work isn’t complete, preliminary results show some interesting results, particularly when it comes to the use of pick-up vehicles.

When farmers have their sows picked up, to avoid the potential spread of disease, they bring the animals to the property’s edge to meet the commercial truck in a pick-up vehicle. According to Danish law, the pick-up vehicle must be equipped like a barn, and animals should not be left on the vehicle for longer than two hours. According to their observations, though, farmers are not abiding by either rule.

“Of course, I don’t know about the ones I haven’t seen,” clarified Herskin. “But the ones we have seen did not live up to the legal requirement.”

To make matters worse, the time the animals spend on pick-up vehicles is not included in the law regarding the duration of transport. The question Herskin and her fellow researchers raise concerns the behavior of the animals, which she said is the same as it is during transport.

In conclusion, Herskin said that not only does the language need to be reviewed and changed, but more research needs to be done to better understand the impact of transport on livestock.

Germany aims to set new standards

While some EU states are too lax when it comes to animal welfare law, one country has decided to take it to the next level. One year ago, the German Minister of Agriculture, Christian Schmidt, made a move to boost animal welfare policies and promote good practice within the livestock sector. The initiative, also known as “A Question of Attitude – New Ways for Better Animal Welfare,” has made changes in animal welfare practices through voluntary action.

Schmidt was also concerned about how the rules are being interpreted from state to state. “Policies should not stop at national borders,” he told the crowd at the pig welfare conference in Denmark. “Animal welfare should extend to all borders we deal with.”

His outlook on Germany’s stance is positive, though. “Germany will be a trendsetter in animal welfare,” said Schmidt. “Everyone can make a valuable contribution to improving animal welfare.”

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