EFSA opinions on the welfare of calves


EFSA opinions on the welfare of calves

29 March 2023

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published today their scientific opinion on calf welfare. The EFSA was mandated to describe the most used systems, their welfare consequences and measures to prevent and mitigate those consequences.

EFSA also looked at three specific issues: 

  • Welfare of calves reared for white veal (including requirements for space, group housing and iron intake), 
  • Risk of limited contact between mother and calf 
  • What type indicators can be measured in slaughterhouses to monitor the welfare on farm. 

A species-specific Directive already exists to protect calves in the EU (Council Directive 2008/11/EC), yet it is extremely outdated, and fails to take into account new science published since it was adopted in 2008. Proof of this is that EFSA identified several hazards connected to these systems ranging  from respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases to inability to perform natural behaviours or even calves experiencing group stress. 

They have advised several solutions that Eurogroup for Animals welcomes: 

  • Group housing from the first week of life (between 2 to 7 calves) and keeping them in stable groups.
  • Increased space allowance - 20 m² is recommended so calves can express their full behaviour and 3 m³ is the minimum recommended per calf (all in group housing)
  • In regards to feeding: Good colostrum intake, increased amount of milk provided, and good quality roughage availability from 2 weeks of age. 
  • Several welfare indicators can be collected in the slaughterhouse, but they should be complemented with behavioural ones collected on farm

Regrettably, although the available science already points towards a need for a longer period of cow-calf contact and bonding, EFSA took a conservative approach, only recommending a minimum 24 hours of cow-calf contact. We strongly oppose this conclusion. Cow and calf contact can reduce stress of both adult females and calves, it increases the vitality and resilience of the calves and leads to an increase in body weight gain of the calves. Furthermore, it provides a better social behaviour for the calves in the long run that is prolonged until adult age. It also leads to an increased expression of positive behaviours for both. Eurogroup for Animals recommends that contact between the calf and the mother should be allowed for at least the first eight weeks of age. During this period, calves and cows shall be kept in a half-day contact system - at least - with suckling permitted.   

Furthermore, Eurogroup for Animals would like to see a more science-driven, animal welfare approach when it comes to iron levels in the calves’ blood. For acceptable blood levels of iron, we recommend a blood haemoglobin concentration of at least 6,0 mmol/L throughout the life of the calf, as already required by the German Directive 2008/119 (EFSA is recommending 5.3 mmol/L).

The science demonstrates that business as usual for calves is not going to work anymore. We urge the Commission to listen to the science and seriously improve the species-specific legislation to protect calves in the EU and beyond.

Welfare of calves kept for white and rosé veal production