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EU parliament restricts live animal transports

Max Zander
January 20, 2022

The EU has moved to regulate live transports of animals more strictly. The changes come after an animal welfare investigation had revealed shocking insights into the industry.

Live turkeys in cages stacked up on the back of a truck
Activists have campaigned for years to ban live animal exports from the EUImage: Valmedia/Zoonar/picture alliance

These images are hard to look at: a cow with a broken horn, smeared with thick, coagulated blood. Some of it has dripped onto the yellow tag on the animal's ear, where the letters of the animal's country of origin are clearly visible: HU, Hungary.

Farm animals like this, destined for the non-European market, may spend days, even weeks, at sea, cooped up onboard ships. They often suffer from the heat, dehydration, and disease. Those that die are usually just thrown overboard.

"You'd better have a stiff drink before you watch this," Gabriel Paun warns. Paun works for the animal welfare organization Animals International. He has given DW access to video material from his research.

It shows, among other things: cows standing in the heat, caked in their own muck, or collapsed on the beds of trucks; sheep being driven onto ships with blows and electric shocks, only to be ineptly slaughtered when they finally reach their destination. The countries they are transported to include Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Libya, and Israel.

Closeup of cow with broken and bleeding horn
A fact-finding committee found, among other things, that there are no sanctions for mistreatment of animalsImage: AWF|TSB

Hardly any checks

For years, Gabriel Paun and other activists have documented the transportation of farm animals, both within the European Union and across its borders. They often filmed secretly, from hiding places, for fear of reprisal. Time and again, they say, there have been problems with the police.

Authorities "had no idea this European regulation of transport exists. That they should be on the roads and preventing these trucks that travel when the asphalt is melting, their animals are dying in trucks," says Paun.

More than 3.8 million animals are transported through the EU every day. Exporting livestock from the EU to third countries is big business — and these journeys are particularly long and stressful for the animals. In 2020, around 3 million live sheep and lambs alone were exported from the EU.

A sheep lying on a pallet about to be slaughtered
Live animals are transported on long, tortuous journeys from the EUImage: Animals International

Committee of inquiry calls for clear rules

The issue is finally gaining some attention. In December, a European Parliament fact-finding committee presented the results of its investigation that showed there were significant violations of current regulations.

Green Party parliamentarian Tilly Metz, chair of the investigative committee, said "that [the journeys] are too long, that the animals have no food, no water, that it is too cold, that it is too warm, that the controls do not take place, that there are no sanctions."

The committee had called for transport times to be limited to eight hours by road and air and 24 hours by sea for animals intended for slaughter. This has been approved with exceptions. A general ban on the transport of heavily pregnant animals, and of animals under five weeks old that have not yet been weaned has been rejected.

Until now, there'd been no time limits on ship transports. Under the rules for transport by road, cattle was allowed to be moved for up to 29 hours. At least, that was the theory.

In practice, Tilly Metz considers the main problem to be that these rules had not been formulated precisely enough, and that there were neither enough trained personnel nor the necessary infrastructure to ensure that they are adhered to.

Calls for a general ban

The issue of live animal exports also presents regulators with another challenge. In most of the countries to which the animals are exported, the laws on animal welfare are far less stringent than in the EU.

Paun reports unprofessional slaughtering without any kind of anesthesia, which he filmed during his research in countries outside the EU, and which would be punishable in the EU.

"They are stabbing the eyes, cutting the eyes so they can't see. They are slashing the tendons to put the big animal down. And then stabbing the neck […] and then multiple throat cuts," Paun says. "Sometimes it takes 30 to 40 minutes to kill a single big bull."

Aerial view of a transport ship in the Romanian port of Midia
Previoulsy, there'd been no limitation on how long an animal can be in transport by seaImage: Animals International

Animal rights organizations are therefore calling for a general ban on all live animal exports from the EU. But the committee of inquiry did not go that far. Another rejected amendment by the Green Party demanded that, in the future, live animals should only be exported to countries where the same legal conditions apply as in the EU. However, that would have ruled out a large proportion of the buyers.

The agricultural lobby also opposed the stricter rules. Copa-Cogeca, the largest federation of agricultural lobbying associations in the EU, gave a statement to DW in which it said the regulations "must be species-specific and based on solid scientific evidence, not on emotions."

"When discussing the limitation or even a ban on transport of certain categories of animals, for instance unweaned or gestating animals, Copa and Cogeca cannot support that a specific age or time for transport is set before a thorough scientific and socio-economic impact is performed in the EU," the statement continued.

Frozen meat as an alternative

Tilly Metz speaking at the European Parliament
Committee chair Tilly Metz said there were significant violations of current regulationsImage: EU European Parliament

Although there still seems to be a lot of resistance, a rethink does appear to be in progress. Last year, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands had already called for live shipments to third countries to be banned. And the European Commission has announced that the current protection rules for animal transports will be revised.

Some countries have already taken such steps. New Zealand has banned the export of live animals for slaughter, while Australia imposes such stringent requirements on exporters that numbers have dropped dramatically.

Animal rights activists hope that, sooner or later, the transport of live animals in the EU will be replaced by the export of frozen meat, as well as embryos and sperm for breeding. They argue that this would not only be in the interests of animal welfare, but could also create additional jobs in Europe.

This article was originally written in German.