The future of animal welfare law in Europe: citizens speak up for animals, now the EC needs to honour their wishes

The future of animal welfare law in Europe: citizens speak up for animals, now the EC needs to honour their wishes

15 April 2022
When the general public overwhelmingly gets behind a cause, sometimes a win is just around the corner.

Reineke Hameleers  Message from our CEO

The recent and emblematic case of Kurt Zouma, the West Ham’s football player who was filmed mistreating one of his cats causing public outrage, is one such example. Among a surge of indignation supported and amplified by national celebrities, the RSPCA not only seized the player’s two cats, but prosecuted him and his brother under the UK Animal Welfare Act 2006. 

We are deeply attuned to the suffering of animals, especially those under our care, those who share our lives. Mistreating them is the ultimate form of treason because we decide to bring them into our lives and they totally depend on us for their wellbeing. But what about other animals, the trillions, the innumerable actually, who are reared or caught for food? Are people oblivious to their predicament? True, their suffering is still something that part of the general public ignores, or chooses to put at the back of their minds. After all, these are the animals that end up on our plates and it is difficult to reconcile certain harsh realities with our daily choices. Yet, there too, something has profoundly changed, and I don’t hesitate to say that this change is potentially momentous. 

We are, right now, at a turning point: decades of science- and evidence-based public campaigns and petitions, led by animal protection NGOs often supported by the European Parliament, coupled with years of official audits carried out by the European Commission, have shown that EU rules and regulations on farmed animal welfare are scientifically obsolete and hugely inadequate. Overwhelming evidence led the European Commission to commit to revise the entire animal welfare legislation and to launch a public consultation on the way in which the rules can be improved. The consultation, which ended on 21 January, registered a staggering 59,286 valid responses, of which the vast majority (92.12%) came from EU citizens.  

In preparation for the consultation and for the upcoming legislative revision, Eurogroup for Animals released a report and a white paper detailing the main shortcomings of the animal welfare rules currently in force in the EU, and proposing directions for change. One may think that the documents make for grim reading as they delve into the many facets of animal suffering involved in the rearing and killing of animals for food: the pain endured in their short lives by the billions of chickens intensively reared for meat;  the farce of “enriched” cages for laying hens; the utter misery of industrial pig production, which confines hundreds of millions of intelligent, inquisitive creatures to filthy buildings, adding painful mutilations to the cocktail; the sad plight of dairy cows, always portrayed on milk cartons as roaming on pastures, but in fact mostly kept in zero-grazing systems and milked to the death. 

I could continue, but I think the most important message to disseminate is that there are science-backed alternatives to the status quo: it is no longer sufficient to aspire to keep farmed animals “free from” hunger, thirst, pain or distress. We need to ensure that all farmed animals experience positive experiences and mental states according to their species and needs. Science should provide guidance on the requirements for each farmed species, and revised legislation also needs to incorporate tools for measuring outcomes.  

The outcome of the public consultation on the revision of animal welfare legislation in the EU, recently published by the European Commission, speaks loud and clear in this respect. Citizens clearly support an ambitious reform of the current rules and demand that it should include species not currently protected. There was overwhelming agreement on the need to ban cages from animal production and a clear desire to see the end of several outdated and cruel practices. Additionally, the consultation showed massive support for a harmonised animal welfare label that should include information on how the animals were transported and slaughtered. Now is the time to act and we strongly call on the European Commission to make sure it delivers the results that citizens rightly expect. 

In the past decade, millions of European citizens have supported important animal protection campaigns: to name but a few, “8 Hours” and “Stop the Trucks”, calling for an end to long-distance live animal transport; “End Pig Pain”, calling for a ban on pig mutilations; the hugely successful and recent ECI End The Cage Age, thanks to which the European Commission will put forward a proposal to phase out the use of cages in animal farming. I could cite many other initiatives that have contributed to shaping collective thinking in the direction that the lives of all farmed animals must be made worth living. The public consultation on the revision of the EU animal welfare acquis is only the latest piece of this puzzle. All will now depend on whether the European Commission’s proposals will incorporate recent science and existing best practice, while taking into account the legitimate expectations of EU citizens.