The live animal export trade has ballooned in Europe while the commission fails to enforce its own regulations, MEPs have told the Guardian.
A second attempt to set up an inquiry committee to look into the handling of the problem is now underway, after an earlier proposal was dismissed in 2018.
In the past 20 years the EU has become one of the global centres for animal export. Within the bloc animals are travelling ever-longer distances, and a steadily increasing number are now being exported to non-EU countries.
The EU has long prided itself on its high animal welfare standards, and has had legislation on animals during transport since 1991. In 2005 the commission introduced regulations on animal transport that were far ahead of the rest of the world at the time. A European parliamentary resolution last year stated: “The EU is where animal welfare is most respected and defended, and it is an example for the rest of the world.”
This week the Guardian’s Animals Farmed series is focusing on the global live animal export trade, which, despite welfare and disease concerns, has quadrupled over the last fifty years.
Nearly 2 billion animals a year are loaded onto trucks or ships and sent off to new countries on journeys that can take weeks.
Every day at least 5 million creatures are in transit, in a secretive global trade in live farm animals.
And those numbers are just the cross-border journeys. They do not include long journeys within countries, which are becoming more frequent due to a trend that has seen smaller slaughterhouses close down.
We’re taking a moment to focus on some of the implications of this global trade.
But in 2018 Jørn Dohrmann, a Danish MEP, was asked to check how well the 2005 regulations were being implemented. His findings were damning. The parliamentary resolution that followed his report listed rough handling, inappropriate vehicles, overcrowding, high temperatures, failures to feed and water, uneven reporting and inspections, widely varying punishments for infringements (10 times higher fines in some states than in others), and no centralised record of operators that perpetrate systematic breaches of regulations.
Dohrmann’s findings were just the latest of many investigations (including some by the commission) to find that regulations were being breached all over the place.
“We have known for decades that something is wrong,” Dutch MEP Anja Hazecamp told the Guardian. “We really thought that with the new transport regulations things would start to change. But we see the same old problems as we saw in the 90s.
“The member states say they want to do something, but they want a level playing field. And the commission says that they need member states to take action. So the same old status quo continues. This is why I am working together with other members of the Animal Welfare Intergroup to get an inquiry committee set up, to look into what is happening. We cannot wait for two more decades for things to change.”
“The commission is not doing its job,” Catherine Rowett MEP said. “It is true that quite a lot of good practice does happen as a result of the regulations, but they are not good enough – and they are not being enforced enough. Yes, it will mean more bureaucracy – but that’s what you have to have in order to make sure that profits don’t take precedence over welfare. It is absolutely crazy, it is bizarre that we can’t get this right.”
“What is lacking is political will at European commission and member state level to reconfigure the EU livestock sector to avoid long journeys,” said Peter Stevenson, chief policy adviser at Compassion in World Farming.
Over two decades the trade has mushroomed at an alarming pace. The EU’s rapporteur states that “long and very long journeys are increasing”. The value of live animal exports across and out of the EU has trebled from $1bn (£763m) in 2000 to $3bn in 2018, according to UN Comtrade data.
The reasons for this growth are complex. The liberation of cross-border trade in Europe, and the growing fragmentation of the farming system has meant that food producers have increasingly taken advantage of cost variations in different countries.
So, for example, the Danes can produce piglets more cheaply than the Poles (they have bred their sows to give birth to more piglets than other countries) – but the Poles can rear them more cheaply (their labour costs and welfare requirements are both lower). The result is that five million piglets were trucked from Denmark to Poland in 2018 to be turned into Polish sausage.
On top of this the EU has expanded east to include countries that have big rural populations and farming sectors, but limited processing facilities. The EU stamp has made their animals even more attractive to buyers, and Romania, Slovakia, Latvia and the Czech Republic are among those that have built up useful export sectors.
The trend for fewer but bigger slaughterhouses is also a key factor. Last year Eurogroup for Animals looked into the sector as part of their call for a shift to a trade in meat and carcasses, rather than live animals. They found there were no centrally held figures – but that where numbers were available the pattern was clear.
It’s a similar trend to the US – where the shift to larger slaughterhouses occurred much earlier. According to the Animal Welfare Institute, the number of slaughterhouses fell from nearly 8,000 in 1970 to just under 3,000 in 2018. And in the UK, where the Sustainable Food Trust has been monitoring the situation, the number of red meat abattoirs has fallen from about 1,900 in 1971 to 249 in 2018.
But industry figures say that the costs involved in mobile slaughterhouses will make them impossible, given the expectations of the modern shopper. “People aren’t going to buy meat which is three times more expensive – and the labour costs for mobile slaughterhouses will be very high,” Rupert Claxton of international food consultancy Gira told the Guardian.
“If you are a big commercial farmer wanting to put lamb into a supermarket chain, you need to keep the bacteria count down on the meat so you can have the shelf life that allows the long supply chain to work, so people can take it home and put it in their fridge for a week or 10 days before they want to eat it. In which case you’ve got to go to a big modern plant that can guarantee all those steps have been regulated and put in place. On-farm kill is not a realistic option in this country, or for most of Europe.”
The modern shopper’s expectation of cheap meat, plus issues around labour shortages and regulatory demands, put huge pressure on producers, said Claxton, pointing out that in at least one supermarket chain you can currently buy a chicken for about £1.90 a kg.
Hazekamp agrees. “As long as we continue to think that the production of food can’t cost anything, we will not solve this problem.”
She is currently pushing for a full official inquiry into the issue. In 2018 Hazekamp and colleagues asked for an inquiry committee to investigate whether the regulations were working. But, despite gathering more than the required number of signatures, the Conference of Presidents instead commissioned the implementation report.
But she believes things will be different this time. “The climate has certainly changed,” she told the Guardian. “Animal welfare is no longer a minor issue that can be ignored.”
Campaigners believe that under the new commission, headed by Ursula von der Leyen, things look different. “The new team are very different from their predecessors,” points out Joe Moran at the Eurogroup for Animals. “We are obviously dismayed at the growth of this trade, but we are also now more optimistic that new measures will be brought forward by the commission that will begin to address this problem.”
A spokesperson for the European commission for health and food safety told the Guardian: “The issue of animal transport is of a major concern for the European commission. Over the past three years the commission has audited member states on road and sea transport to non-EU countries, issued recommendations and is following up on the action plans presented by member states. The commission services are ultimately building evidence to move, if necessary, towards possible proceedings against member states who have systematic non-compliances.”