MEP calls for creation of European animal welfare commissioner

Compliance and enforcement of EU animal welfare legislation is painfully inadequate - quite literally so - for millions of animals across Europe, argues Dan Jørgensen.

By Dan Jørgensen

04 Oct 2013

Today the European Union has 28 commissioners, each with specific responsibilities, from the quite broadly defined internal market to inter-institutional affairs and administration.

But somehow none of these 28 commissioners are fully dedicated to the burning issue of how the hundreds of millions of farm animals, reared each year in the EU, are treated. We need a commissioner for animal welfare.

The mere fact that we have more than 250 million farm animals, not even counting chickens, ducks and sheep, in the EU but no commissioner specifically charged with their wellbeing is quite simply beyond me. How can that be? Is animal welfare not an important topic? Does it not interest Europe's citizens? Of course it is and of course it does.

Animal welfare charity Compassion in world farming recently inspected 45 pig farms in six member states. They found that all but one of the farms visited were in breach of the EU pig directive's requirements that enrichment materials must be provided and that the pigs may not be routinely tail-docked.

I myself visited a Danish pig farm recently and asked the farmer how many of his piglets were tail-docked. The answer came swiftly; all of them. This particular farmer is not alone in this practice.

Routine tail-docking is the rule rather than the exception in Denmark - as it is throughout Europe. Allow me to recap, this practice is illegal. Farmers and national agencies have had 10 years to stop this practice and yet, nothing has happened.

This really ought to cause an outrage. Think of any other directive being breached in a similar fashion, that is to say consistently, systematically and openly. The commission wouldn't stand for it, the council wouldn't stand for it and the European parliament most definitely wouldn't stand for it.

The problem is three-sided. Firstly, we are faced with the moral problem of ignoring the continued and systematic abuse of hundreds of millions of animals year after year. We would do well to remember, that animals can feel pain, fright, anxiety and stress just as well as we do.

They have natural needs and impulses which we, through intensive farming, have gotten increasingly adept at denying them. But this does not mean that these instincts vanish. Instead they have to find different outlets.

Pigs living in natural conditions, for example, spend most of their time rummaging through and exploring their surroundings. Denied of the possibility to do this - living in barren and overcrowded pens, as the vast majority of European pigs do - the pigs start to chew on each others tails, resulting in infected wounds and horrendous suffering.

Instead of supplying the pigs with straw or other materials, that would allow them to act on their natural impulses, farmers simply cut off the pigs' tails - problem solved. It stands to reason that such practices have to stop immediately.

Secondly, failure to act poses a very serious democratic challenge. Eurobarometer surveys have shown that, on average, EU citizens rate the importance of protecting the welfare of farmed animals at 7.8 out of 10 in importance.

More than a third of respondents rank the issue at a clear 10 out of 10 whilst only two per cent state that the issue is not important at all.

How can we ignore an issue which a third of all Europeans believe is of the utmost importance? What's more is that 58 per cent of citizens say they would like more information on the subject. It is my fervently held belief that if citizens knew exactly what conditions farm animals lived under, the demand for organic or animal welfare friendly products would skyrocket.

This isn't mere conjecture on my part. Numbers show that 62 per cent of all citizens would "certainly" or "probably" change their usual place of shopping, in order to buy more animal welfare friendly food products. Through lack of clear leadership from the commission, we are failing to meet the expectations and demands of our fellow citizens who demonstrably care deeply about this issue.

"Ensuring that EU law is implemented and enforced within member states is a core responsibility of the commission"

Thirdly, constitutionally and institutionally the current situation is quite simply untenable. Ensuring that EU law is implemented and enforced within member states is a core responsibility of the commission.

Clearly the commission cannot lift this obligation within its current setup - at any rate, it simply isn't doing so with regards to animal welfare. That is why we need an animal welfare commissioner who can stand up to vested interests and ensure that EU law is upheld. The commission cannot sit idly by as directives are systematically and nonchalantly flaunted.

Much legislation is in place but compliance and enforcement of the directives is painfully inadequate - quite literally so for millions of animals across Europe.

That is why it's high time we had a dedicated, proactive and focused commissioner for animal welfare who can uphold EU law, meet the demands of our citizens and improve the lives of hundreds of millions of sentient beings. A noble and worthwhile mandate for any commissioner, I should think.