The European Parliament has voted to establish an inquiry committee to investigate the transport of live animals across and out of the European Union.
The committee will address whether the European Commission has failed to act upon evidence of “serious and systematic” infringements of EU regulations for the protection of exported live animals.
Dutch MEP Anja Hazekamp described the vote, which took place on Friday, as a “historical breakthrough” for animal welfare: “A huge majority of parliament have said that animal transports should be investigated really firmly because they can all see there is so much going wrong.”
Animal welfare organisation Four Paws welcomed it as a “milestone decision”. Approximately 200 reports detailing breaches in regulations have been filed to the commission since 2007.
Hazekamp said these cases are not incidental as those in the industry often claim: “It is on a structural basis that we see really cruel things done to animals – severe abuse and mistreatment.”
For a long time, she said, neither the commission nor member states were willing to take the lead in responsibility “and in the meantime, for decades, nothing changed”. Fear of commercial competition has also been an obstacle, she adds.
The Guardian reported earlier this year that the global live animal export business has more than quadrupled in size over the past 50 years, with rising meat demand setting nearly 2 billion animals on the move in 2017.
The trade is also booming in Europe with an estimated value of $3.3bn (GBP2.7bn). Animals are undertaking increasingly long journeys – sometimes lasting weeks – to places as remote as Russia, Uganda and Thailand.
The committee’s report, to be submitted in a year, will look at suspected lack of enforcement for regulations on space, watering, feeding, bedding, temperature and ventilation for transported animals.
The EU decision follows growing action from member states. Last month the Netherlands, one of the world’s biggest exporters of live animals, became the first to announce a suspension on transports to non-EU countries as long as there were doubts on meeting EU regulations.
“It’s a very important decision because so far what we have heard member states saying is that they cannot oblige a non-European country to comply with an EU law,” said Francesca Porta from Eurogroup for Animals. “But it’s not about obliging. It’s about member states taking responsibility.”
Last week Austria followed suit and a number of German federal states have also introduced similar measures.
The Netherlands’ decision was prompted by investigations from German vets and campaigners into transport routes into Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
In August last year four German vets visited a number of “resting spots” regularly supplied by German transport companies on their journey plans. EU regulations stipulate that until they reach their final destination, after every 29 hours of travel cattle must be unloaded, fed and watered in a designated resting place for 24 hours.
The vets reported that some spots did not uphold regulations and that some places listed as resting spots did not exist at all.
“They [export companies] just wrote down some addresses but there was nothing [there],” said Madeleine Martin, one of the vets on the visit.
Their report concludes that animals on the route likely suffered “long-lasting and significant suffering and harm”. It states some transported animals had died painfully due to swallowing “foreign objects” at non-registered resting spots.
“We had the proof that the animals were not unloaded for five days,” said Helena Bauer, from the group. “They suffer because they cannot move or properly drink, eat and rest.” Their video footage shows cattle covered in frost on the truck.
A number of these resting spots were also regularly named on journey plans by Dutch exporters transporting breeding cattle, according to the Dutch agricultural minister Carola Schouten.
Ina Muller-Arnke from German animal welfare organisation Four Paws said there was no real control system enforcing EU legislation: “So if you don’t have a control system or sanctions legislation doesn’t work.”
The Netherlands have stated that a new process will be developed to ensure full compliance with EU legislation. The European Commission’s recent Farm to Fork sustainable food strategy also announced plans to revise legislation on animal transport and slaughter.
Campaigners have also highlighted inhumane slaughter methods as a ground for tightening regulation and called for a shift towards the export of meat and carcasses.
While Hazekamp doesn’t believe the parliament wants to ban live exports entirely, the new inquiry and member-state action highlights growing political momentum.
“There is more and more pressure,” she said. “It’s a big problem that is really in the hearts of the citizens of Europe.”
Meanwhile the Irish live export trade is facing a new challenge. The country has exported more than 120,000 calves this year, down about 47,000 on 2019, due to disruption caused by Covid-19. But a letter last week from the European Commission to welfare organisation, Eyes on Animals (EoA), appears to cast doubt on Ireland’s compliance with feeding requirements for unweaned animals on long sea journeys.
In a 15 June letter the commission said it understands that unweaned calves must be fed after a maximum of 18 hours, according to EU Regulation 1/2005. The problem for Irish and Northern Irish calves, exported to mainland Europe in trucks driven on to car ferries, is that the door-to-door journey can take 25 to 30 hours and they are not fed milk or milk replacer during that time.
To date, the long journeys without food, mostly from Rosslare or Dublin to the French port of Cherbourg, have not been an issue thanks to legal exemptions for longer sea journeys. The commission’s letter found, however, that the sea journey exemption is made “without altering” the rules “regarding watering and feeding intervals”.
EoA founder Lesley Moffat said that means “regardless of the exception for longer sea journeys, there is no exception to the feeding rules”. For older animals, said Moffat, “you can comply by putting hay inside the truck or through the bars. You can’t do that with liquid milk replacer and unweaned calves can’t eat anything else.” That means their feed requirements are not met. Animal welfare lawyer Peter Stevenson said he believes the commission’s letter means Irish and Northern Irish officials must no longer approve the journey logs normally required for exported animals.
In an emailed response to questions about the commission’s letter, Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, said it “ensures the transport and movement of animals operate in compliance with the legislative requirements”. The email did not answer queries about feeding unweaned calves after 18 hours, but it noted that animal “movements are governed by the provisions which allow for transport by sea on regular and direct links by vehicles loaded on to vessels without unloading of the animals”. Northern Ireland’s agricultural department did not reply to emails or calls.
Green party senator and farmer Pippa Hackett, who is currently in coalition talks that could see the Greens join Ireland’s next government, was outspoken about the commission’s letter. “If calves are travelling for more than 18 hours without food, then this is surely a breach in EU regulation, and someone should be prosecuted.” Clarification, she said, would be required as to whether the onus is on the shipping company, the exporter, or the lorry driver.