Friday, 29 September 2023 18:23

Europe might abandon its animal welfare revolution

A caged female breeding pig at a farm in Spain.

Europe was on the cusp of an animal welfare revolution.

In the summer of 2021, European Union policymakers promised to phase out cages for 300 million farmed pigs, egg-laying hens, rabbits, and other species, which Vox contributor Jonathan Moens then called “the most ambitious plan ever by any government to end the cruel practice.”

But two years later, after pressure from the powerful European meat lobby and concerns over rising food costs due to inflation, extreme weather, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that legislation — along with a suite of other reforms that would reduce the suffering of potentially billions of farmed animals — has been thrown into doubt.

Earlier this month, three anonymous EU officials told the Financial Times that the European Commission (the executive branch of the EU) plans to entirely scrap the animal welfare legislation. Another anonymous official said the commission plans to scale back, though not entirely ditch, its policy proposals, the Financial Times reported.

Reineke Hameleers, CEO of the nonprofit Eurogroup for Animals, told Vox that “the animal welfare legislation has sort of become a victim of the political climate we are working in,” such as broader fights over Europe’s Green New Deal.

But, Hameleers added, “the truth of the matter is that no one really knows what will happen [with the legislation] now.” The Financial Times report “caused quite some commotion, but if you ask five different people in the commission about this legislation, you’re hearing five slightly different stories.”

In an email to Vox, a European Commission spokesperson firmly denied the allegations that it was abandoning the reforms. “We are not dropping the proposal,” the spokesperson said. “This preparatory work is ongoing, covering legislation for the welfare of animals at farm level, during transport, at the time of killing and to establish a voluntary European label for animal welfare.”

A worker in a white protective suit examines hens, hundreds of which are in view, poking their heads through rows of green bars to reach food troughs.
An industrial egg-laying facility on the outskirts of Madrid, Spain, holds hundreds of thousands of hens.

Copa-Cogeca, a prominent EU farming lobby, argues that a cage ban would significantly raise food costs, reduce farmer income, and make Europe reliant on meat and egg imports — conclusions animal advocacy groups contest. “The question is not on the timetable, but rather the content of the proposals,” said Pekka Pesonen, the group’s secretary general, in an email to Vox. “Impacts can be huge if this work is done in [a] rush based on political considerations rather than technical discussions.”

European Livestock Voice, a coalition of animal agriculture associations in Europe, did not respond to a request for comment.

Despite the European Commission’s stated commitment to following through on a cage ban and other major reforms to EU animal welfare regulations, animal advocates remain skeptical — and worry the commission is running out of time to get it done, pointing to signs that some EU officials are siding with the livestock industry, and causing delays that put the reform package at risk of falling through the EU’s policymaking cracks.

For example, earlier this month, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen expressed sympathy with agribusiness in her State of the Union address, but didn’t mention the animal welfare legislation.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, delivers her State of the Union 2023 speech on September 13.

Last year, the commission said that by the end of the third quarter of this year, it would publish its draft animal welfare legislation so the European Council and Parliament could begin reviewing it — a critical milestone to move it forward. But that deadline is about to pass, and animal advocates say the commission hasn’t even begun the internal consultation process required to advance the proposed legislation, which takes a few weeks.

When asked if the commission would meet its end-of-quarter deadline, the spokesperson said that such dates are tentative and “may change at any moment in time. Nothing can be confirmed for certain until closer to date.”

A weeks-long delay may seem minor, but the timing is incredibly tight, animal advocates say. Once the commission kicks the draft legislation over to the European Council and Parliament for review, that process could take well over a year, and then there are further steps required to finally enact it into law. But EU elections take place next June, and without significant progress made prior to election season, there’s no guarantee the next Parliament would pick it up, said Olga Kikou, European affairs manager for Compassion in World Farming, which led the campaign to ban cages EU-wide.

The delays and allegations of ditching the animal welfare reforms altogether underscore an obvious yet profound challenge of cracking down on animal cruelty in the political arena: Animals can’t lobby for themselves, and however abusive meat industry conditions may be, they’re often subordinated to concerns over food prices and business interests.

The global stakes of Europe’s animal welfare reforms

Animal advocates have characterized the potential policy reversal as a betrayal of EU citizens and the democratic process. The cage ban came about as a result of what’s called a European Citizens’ Initiative, in which EU citizens can propose a policy directly to the commission so long as they collect at least 1 million signatures in support of it. The commission doesn’t have to adopt the proposal, but it at least has to formally respond to it.

A coalition of animal welfare groups gathered 1.4 million signatures to put the cage ban before the commission, which then agreed to craft legislation to phase out cages for farmed animals across the EU’s 27 member states. Its supporters say it’s the only such initiative to win firm support from the commission since the citizens’ initiative system began in 2012 — and it would end a decades-long fight to wholly eliminate cages from Europe’s meat and egg sectors.

In the last few decades, the EU has taken some steps toward that goal. In 2007, it banned veal crates, and in 2012, it implemented a ban on tiny cages for egg-laying hens. But the EU still allows larger cages; in 2021, almost half of the 376 million hens in the EU were confined. The EU has also implemented a partial ban on cages for female breeding pigs, allowing pork producers to lock them in small crates barely bigger than their bodies for about a third of their four-month pregnancies, and for several weeks as they wean piglets.

A few individual EU countries have banned cages for pigs or hens, though Germany and Denmark are the only agricultural giants among them. Germany’s ban on cages for hens takes effect in 2025, and its near-total ban on cages for pigs will go into effect later this decade, while Denmark’s near-total ban for pigs goes into effect in 2035. France, another food giant, has instituted a partial ban on the sale of eggs from caged hens.

Three pigs with tags in their ears look up and poke their noses out from between metal bars. They are separated from each other by metal partitions.
Female breeding pigs, or sows, look out from their cages at an industrial farm in Poland.

In addition to an EU-wide cage phase-out, the European Commission is also looking at a broader overhaul of its animal welfare regulations. Earlier this year, a leaked draft assessment of the commission’s proposals revealed that it’s considering phasing out painful mutilations routinely performed on farmed animals, like the cutting of hens’ beaks and pigs’ tails. The draft also included reforms to inhumane transport conditions, the brutal culling of day-old male chicks, fish slaughter, and the treatment of chickens raised for meat.

These changes wouldn’t create idyllic conditions, but they would eliminate some of the worst cruelties on animal farms. But now, amid rumors of a reversal or weakening of the proposals, animal advocates are alarmed.

“We are, of course, astonished by the fact that the commission … would backslide on its promises and its commitments,” Kikou said. “It’s not a good development for democracy because the citizens feel weak, they feel that they’re not listened to … This is not how a democracy should operate.”

Whatever the commission does next will reverberate outside the European Union.

A continent-wide overhaul of farm animal welfare standards would bolster momentum for such improvements in other countries and demonstrate to food companies that there’s public demand and political will to reform the treatment of animals in agriculture. In the EU, both animal advocates and farmers have been pushing for the new standards to also apply to food imported from outside the EU, which could reduce the suffering of millions of animals outside the continent.

Conversely, scrapping or weakening the plans would be a major setback to the movement for a more humane food system.

The meat industry versus democracy

The fracas over the EU’s animal welfare legislation highlights the anti-democratic spirit that’s come to pervade some segments of the industrialized animal agriculture sector. Recent US events mirror what’s transpiring in Europe.

In 2018, California voters overwhelmingly supported a cage ban at the ballot box, and meat industry groups then sued the state three times in an attempt to delay and overturn it. The US Supreme Court ultimately upheld the law after a more than three-year court battle, but meat industry trade groups are now pushing for federal legislation to overturn it, and in the process, strip states and municipalities from setting their own agricultural standards.

At every level of government, agribusiness has lobbied — often successfully — for exemptions to basic animal welfare, labor, and environmental regulations, giving it the unique ability to operate outside laws that other industries must follow.

Despite the repeated political roadblocks put up by agribusiness and its political allies, the animal welfare movement has been able to make some modest progress, and Hameleers, for one, isn’t ready to give up hope for a welfare revolution. The European public wants stronger animal welfare standards, and “there’s broad support in the European Parliament, there’s broad support among the member states,” she said. “The commission has invested so much in this, so it would be a real divestiture if they would not follow through on it.”