Currently there is no specific animal welfare legislation for a long list of animals: for dairy and beef cattle beyond six months old, sheep and goats, the parent birds of broiler chickens and laying hens, pullets, turkeys, ducks and geese, quails, farmed fish, farmed rabbits, dogs and cats.
This means, in practice, that hundreds of millions of terrestrial farmed animals and billions of farmed fish belonging to different species are only protected by the general provisions of Directive 98/58/EC, also known as the “General Farm Animals Directive”. Although this Directive rightly states that “farmers must take all reasonable steps to ensure the welfare of animals under their care and to ensure that those animals are not caused any unnecessary pain, suffering or injury”, a recent report by the European Commission shows that such generic rules are not easy to enforce in practice.
Dairy cows are only covered by the General Farm Animals Directive, with the exception of the Calves Directive, which, among other provisions, prohibits the use of confined individual pens for calves after the age of eight weeks. As far as dairy cows are concerned, reports show that their welfare is not sufficiently monitored and that serious problems persist, including lameness, mastitis, cubicle design, flooring, cleanliness, and permanent tethering. The increasing proportion of cows that are never allowed to graze and the focus on high milk yields are also reasons for concern.
The Broiler Directive excludes smaller farms and establishments that breed parent stock, despite an EFSA opinion stating that providing stimuli such as perches and raised nest boxes is beneficial for the welfare of broilers kept for breeding. Similarly, the Laying Hen Directive does not cover flocks with fewer than 350 hens, pullets (young hens before they start laying), breeding flocks or other species of poultry.
Sheep and goats, as well as beef cattle, are also only covered by Article 3 of the General Farm Animals Directive. They often suffer lameness and metabolic diseases, with lameness classified by EFSA among the three major animal welfare challenges for sheep.
Under EU law, the welfare of farmed fish is covered by EU legislation only during rearing, transport and slaughter. The welfare of wild-caught fish is not covered at all.
Though cats and dogs are some of the most commonly kept animals in Europe, an estimated 99 million and 65 million respectively, there is no species-specific welfare legislation to protect them.
Ducks and geese, farmed for meat and particularly for foie gras, are not protected by species-specific provisions.
Rabbits are the second most numerous farmed terrestrial animals in the EU, with more than 340 million reared for slaughter each year. The industry is outdated, and rabbits are kept almost exclusively in wire cages, without any opportunity to express normal behaviour.
EU CITIZENS THINK PROTECTING THE WELFARE OF FARMED ANIMALS IS IMPORTANT
RABBITS ARE REARED FOR SLAUGHTER EACH YEAR
THE AGE AT WHICH FORCE FEEDING IN FOIS GRAS BEGINS
WHAT DOES THE PUBLIC THINK?
The 2016 special Eurobarometer on animal welfare showed that 94% of EU citizens think protecting the welfare of farmed animals is important, and 82% think they should be better protected by the EU than they are now.
A Eurogroup for Animals poll showed that humane slaughter (89% of respondents), the ability to act out natural behaviours (94%), and access to clean water (95%) are all imperative for fish welfare.
A seven-country survey about attitudes to broilers revealed that an overwhelming majority of respondents feel that chickens should be healthy (90%), subject to a clean environment (89%), be better protected (89%), and be slaughtered humanely (86%).
A 2018 survey in France by Eurogroup for Animals member L214 demonstrated that 60% of respondents were in favor of a ban on force-feeding ducks and geese for the production of foie gras, compared to 44% in 2009.
POLICY - CURRENT STATE OF PLAY
So far, the European Commission has been very reluctant to introduce new rules for the welfare of farmed animals under the Better Regulation policy agenda. The European Parliament has traditionally been more sensitive to improving farm animal welfare. New European Parliament pilot projects on dairy cows and laying hens starting in 2020 will produce best practice guidelines for the welfare of dairy heifers, cows and calves and look into higher-welfare alternative systems for laying hens.
In 2017 the EP voted with a large majority in favour of an own initiative report by Stefan Eck MEP (GUE/NGL, DE) asking for a substantial change in the way rabbits are farmed for meat in the EU. The Parliament also adopted a crucial amendment requiring the European Commission to come up – within an appropriate time frame – with a legislative proposal on minimum standards for the protection of farmed rabbits.
In 2018 the EP adopted a Resolution urging the European Commission to improve the welfare of broiler chickens not only for the sake of the animals, but also to reduce the sector’s use of antibiotics, which is increasingly threatening human health.
The stated objective of the Farm to Fork strategy to revise all animal welfare legislation offers a unique opportunity to finally incorporate the latest scientific evidence on farmed animal welfare into law and practice.