Transporting farm animals

An animal welfare activist filming sheep packed in a truck trailer.

An animal welfare activist filming sheep packed in a truck trailer.

At a conference on the transportation of live animals held in Malta in September, participants heard how European pigs, sheep, cattle and horses often endure overly long truck journeys when they are dispatched to distant abbatoirs from different points across Europe.

The stress the animals undergo induces changes to their body chemistry, which in turn can affect meat quality
- Anne Zammit

No one has yet questioned the carbon footprint of the present system in which livestock are shuttled all over Europe. How much fuel could be saved, how many glaciers rescued, if animals were slaughtered nearer the farms where they are raised?

The event, organised in Malta to attract the attention for former EU Health Commissioner John Dalli, was attended by a number of European vets.

Close to 40 million animals are trucked around Europe every year for breeding and slaughter. After particularly long journeys a number of animals may arrive at abbatoirs dead, diseased or injured.

Last year the European Food Safety Authority (that used to be overseen by Dalli until last month) issued a scientific opinion on welfare of animals during transport following a request from the Commission itself. The EFSA report made recommendations to improve conditions while noting that long journey times were making things worse. It was found that animals were not properly inspec­ted before or after journeys.

Lack of watering provision at all stages of the transport process was leading to dehydration in the animals. Insufficient head-room and lack of appropriate individual penning resulted in exhaustion and aggression.

Inadequate space allowance on the trucks was worsened by mixing unfamiliar animals which became fearful and aggressive toward each other, resulting in injuries. Bad container design and lack of ventilation produced bruising, heat stress and death in rabbits.

Reduced ventilation led to heat exhaustion. On the other hand, too much ventilation during transport caused shivering and cold stress, with hypothermia being a major risk in newly-hatched chicks.

The report concluded that “all these hazards may cause death, severe stress and disease, and thus constitute major welfare concerns”.

Most of the animals survive the trip yet the stress they are forced to undergo induces changes to their body chemistry, with high hormone and enzyme levels, which in turn can affect meat quality.

A veterinarian at the conference, which was briefly visited by Dalli, ventured to ask, “Are these animals fit for human consumption?”

Optimal handling of animals for slaughter would involve minimal stress, short transport times and long ‘lairage’ – or settling down period during which animals are rested, fed and watered before slaughter.

Independent inspections carried out by concerned veterinarians working with non-governmental organisations have confirmed that infringements of the directive regulating animal transport are more the rule than the exception.

Checks carried out by groups campaigning for a reduction to eight hours in transport time revealed that many watering points on the trucks were not working. Also, the animals are often so tightly packed in that they are unable to move once loaded, and some are unable to reach the water .

Legislation protecting animals during transport, in place since 1991, has been amended twice. After a high number of infringements was acknowledged, a new regulation in 2005 called for inspections of transport conditions for the movement of animals if the journey exceeded eight hours.

Truck drivers are mostly wary of the few border inspection posts and add extra miles to the journey to avoid them, meaning extended discomfort for the animals they carry. Inspection officers are not always trained to do their job properly.

No journey in Malta or Italy would exceed eight hours. But meat imported from a country does not necessarily originate from within that country so journey times could be longer than is apparent to the consumer. One of the worst routes is from Spain to Italian abbatoirs, which may take upward of 35 hours.

According to the EU Commission’s own veterinary office, evidence of “unrealistic” drivers’ logs on the length of the journey show that in many cases the rules are being broken.

Despite EFSA statements that journeys should be as short as possible, and its acknowledgement that risk of disease should be prevented by animals being raised close to the point of slaughter, the Commission stands accused of ignoring its own reports.

A campaign to reduce the suffering of animals in transport to at least an eight-hour limit, co-ordinated by Danish Member of the European Parliament Dan Jørgensen, jointly with animal welfare platform Animals’ Angels, cites Article 13 in a1957 treaty on how the EU should function:

“In formulating and implementing the Union’s agriculture, fisheries, transport, internal market, research and technological development and space policies, the Union and the Member States shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals…”

The Health Commission’s own food and veterinary office recognises that the Commission, in its role as guardian of the European Community treaties, is responsible for ensuring that Community legislation on food safety, animal health, plant health and animal welfare is properly implemented and enforced.

In a statement made last January on the EU Animal Welfare Strategy 2012-2015, Dalli made reference to transportation of animals over long distances, adding that surveillance over potential maltreatment of animals was high on his agenda. Yet, at the Malta conference Jørgensen claimed that Dalli had reneged on a June promise to bring forward proposals for revision of the legislation on animal transport times.

In response, Dalli, who believed that responsibility for enforcement of EU rules on animal transport ultimately devolves to the member state, replied: “Don’t think that any issue can have an easy ride because it came from the Commission… I know what it takes to pass legislation through on transport.”

After the passing through the Commission and European Parliament, any legislative proposal would have to be decided upon by the European Council based on consensus in member states. Sensitivities abound over the view that “this is not the time to seek introduction of any changes to transport legislation”.

According to Dalli, the Commission was not ready to embrace an eight-hour limit on animal transport because he claimed it was not scientifically justified for all species and under all circumstances. Instead, the prescribed direction was to improve enforcement, even though this was considered as not working, as witnessed by a number of experts present.

Veterinarians in the room challenged any investigation on enforcement conducted by the Commission as “artificial” if it was done only on what corresponds to the regulations on paper without looking at actual conditions in which the animals are transported.

Jørgensen is president of the European Parliament’s group on welfare and conservation of animals, which has been pushing for protection of dolphins in the Black Sea.

The group is also calling for a shutdown of all captive facilities in the EU. The facilities that house them are described by the group as failing to meet the biological requirements of highly mobile and intelligent creatures.

Around 300 captive whales and dolphins are held in 34 dolphinariums across 15 EU member states.


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