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Animal welfare

#COVID-19 is teaching us a harsh lesson: We need to change our relationship with animals

Guest contributor



Yes, COVID-19 came from animals. COVID-19 was transmitted from wildlife to humans as a consequence of the sheer number of species sold in “wet” markets. These are common across Asia, as in many other developing countries, and sell all things perishable: fruits, vegetables and most notably animals – dead or alive, domestic and wild, write Reineke Hameleers, Dr Elena Nalon and Ilaria Di Silvestre. 

This time the pandemic came from Asia – but it could just as easily have originated here.

The EU is a major destination for exotic pets, including primates, reptiles, and amphibians. They are legally and illegally traded and transported to be sold and kept in EU citizens’ homes, with no sanitary controls. Traders don't adopt any of the precautionary safety provisions required in other EU industries. Animals may have been kept in conditions similar to those of Asian or African wet markets, before being transported to European houses. This is a time-bomb ready to explode.

Another major cause of the spread of animal diseases transmissible to humans – zoonoses – is pressure on biodiversity. Changes in land and sea use and loss of habitat for agricultural purposes, especially for the intensification of animal farming, cause more frequent and closer interactions between animals (farmed and wild), humans, and ecosystems. Zoonoses regularly emerge as a result of what is now, awfully, the norm in food production in most developed parts of the world: intensive farming.

Farmed animals kept by the billions (trillions, if we consider fish in aquaculture) are reservoirs and pathways for diseases that can be dangerous, if not devastating, for humans. In a report from 2008 on industrial farm animal production in America, the Pew Commission warned of the “unacceptable” public health risks posed by industrialised animal agriculture. A more recent study found that “since 1940, agricultural drivers were associated with >25% of all – and >50% of zoonotic — infectious diseases that emerged in humans, proportions that will likely increase as agriculture expands and intensifies”.

Quite apart from the horrendous impact of intensive farming on the animals themselves, its potential as a hotbed for zoonoses is devastating. Influenza A viruses, which can cause human pandemics, are hosted by the most farmed species worldwide: poultry and pigs. Seventy billion chickens and 1.5 billion pigs are slaughtered every year in the world. Asian ‘bird flu’ strains H7N9 and H5N1 – which originated in poultry – have been responsible for most human illness worldwide, both in terms of severity and mortality.

Pigs can act as ‘mixing vessels’, becoming infected with both avian and human influenza viruses at the same time. If this happens, the genes of these different viruses can combine and give rise to a new virus capable of causing influenza pandemics. In 2009 an influenza A H1N1 virus with genes from pigs, poultry and humans caused the first pandemic for more than 40 years. It’s now a seasonal human flu virus that continues to circulate worldwide.

Viruses are not the only threat. Several zoonotic bacteria are hosted by farmed animals. The WHO estimates that, globally, 111 million yearly cases of foodborne disease are caused by various strains of E. coli, at least 95.5 million cases caused by Campylobacter, and 80 million cases of salmonellosis.

And that’s not all. Treating farmed animals against disease in intensive industrial conditions requires a massive use of antimicrobials, which contributes hugely to what the WHO has described as “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today” – antimicrobial resistance.

We've only got ourselves to blame.

Wild and domestic animals have carried viruses and bacteria for millennia. What has changed is the way we humans interact with them.

Animals don’t ask to end up in wet markets. They don’t ask to be traded, transported and kept as pets. They don’t ask to be intensively farmed. And despite the unambiguous scientific evidence about the risks to public health, industry and governments have closed their eyes.

Now or never

But there’s hope on the horizon.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically shown that the way we treat the animals who share our planet has consequences we can’t continue to ignore.

This year the EU has a great opportunity to show that the lesson has been learned. The European Commission is drafting two crucial components of the EU Green Deal: the Biodiversity Strategy to 2030 and the Farm to Fork Strategy. These two documents, if ambitious enough, can initiate a decisive change of direction of the EU policies on wildlife trade and agricultural practices respectively.

The new EU Biodiversity Strategy should include specific actions to fight wildlife trafficking and to effectively regulate the exotic pet trade in the EU, thereby protecting the health of EU consumers as well as global biodiversity from the risks posed by the currently poorly regulated trade in live wild animals. An EU-wide ‘Positive List’ stating which animal species are suitable and safe to be kept as pets – an instrument that is preventive in nature – should be considered. Such a list has already been successfully introduced in Belgium and Luxembourg, and is being developed in the Netherlands.

The Farm to Fork Strategy can and should play a very important role in protecting human and animal health in the face of the increasing risk of pandemics and antimicrobial resistance caused by intensive industrial animal agriculture. Such a strategy should include concrete measures to promote a shift towards healthier, plant-based diets, higher-welfare animal farming practices that can drastically reduce the over-reliance on antimicrobial treatments, and farming systems and practices that can contribute to restoring biodiversity instead of impoverishing it.

The ongoing pandemic is teaching us a painful but necessary lesson: respect for animals and their habitats is integral to human health and welfare. If ever there was a time to be bold, that moment is now.

Reineke Hameleers is the CEO of Eurogroup for Animals and holds a masters in the relationship between human and non-human animals.
Dr Elena Nalon is the senior veterinary adviser at Eurogroup for Animals. She is a veterinarian and a EBVS® European veterinary specialist in animal welfare, ethics and law.
Ilaria Di Silvestre is the wildlife programme leader at Eurogroup for Animals and a biologist specialized in wildlife eco-ethology and conservation.

Eurogroup for Animals represents 70 animal advocacy organisations in 25 EU member states, the UK, Switzerland, Serbia, Norway, Australia and the USA. Since its inception in 1980, the organisation has succeeded in encouraging the EU to adopt higher legal standards for animal protection. Eurogroup for Animals reflects public opinion through its membership organisations’ affiliations across the Union, and has both the scientific and technical expertise to provide authoritative advice on issues relating to animal welfare.

 Follow Eurogroup for Animals on Twitter @Act4AnimalsEU and like us on Facebook.

Animal transports

Animal welfare victory: CJEU ruling confirms member states' right to introduce mandatory pre-slaughter stunning  

EU Reporter Correspondent



Today (17 December) is a historic day for animals, as the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) clarified that member states are allowed to impose mandatory pre-slaughter stunning. The case raised from the ban adopted by the Flemish government in July 2019 which made stunning compulsory also for the production of meat by means of traditional Jewish and Muslim rites.

The verdict ruled that member states can legitimately introduce mandatory reversible stunning in the framework of Art. 26.2(c) of the Council Regulation 1099/2009 (Slaughter Regulation), with the aim to improve animal welfare during those killing operations carried out in the context of religious rites. It clearly states that the Slaughter Regulation “does not preclude member states from imposing an obligation to stun animals prior to killing which also applies in the case of slaughter prescribed by religious rites”.

This judgment considers the latest development on reversible stunning as a method that successfully balances the apparently competing values of religious freedom and animal welfare, and it concludes that “the measures contained in the (Flemish) decree allow a fair balance to be struck between the importance attached to animal welfare and the freedom of Jewish and Muslim believers to manifest their religion”.

Eurogroup for Animals has followed the Court case closely and in October it released an opinion poll showing that EU citizens do not want to see animals slaughtered while fully conscious.

“It is now clear that our society doesn’t support animals to unduly suffer at the most critical time of their lives. Reversible stunning makes it possible to successfully balance the apparently competing values of religious freedom, and the concern for animal welfare under current EU law. Acceptance of pre-slaughter stunning by religious communities is increasing both in EU and non-EU countries. Now it’s time for the EU to make pre-slaughter stunning always mandatory in the next revision of the Slaughter Regulation,” said Eurogroup for Animals CEO Reineke Hameleers.

Throughout the years, experts have raised concerns about the serious animal welfare implications of killing without pre-cut stunning (FVE, 2002; EFSA, 2004; BVA, 2020), as acknowledged by the Court itself, in another case (C-497/17).

The case will now go back to the Flanders’ constitutional court which will have to confirm and implement the CJEU’s ruling. Furthermore, the imminent revision of the Slaughter Regulation, as announced by the European Commission in the framework of the EU Farm to Fork strategy, gives the chance to further clarify the matter by making pre-slaughter stunning always compulsory and move towards a Europe that cares for animals.

Following the European Court of Justice’s decision this morning to uphold the ban on non-stun slaughter in the Belgian regions of Flanders and WalloniaChief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER), has issued the following statement:

“This decision goes even further than expected and flies in the face of recent statements from the European Institutions that Jewish life is to be treasured and respected. The Court is entitled to rule that member states may or may not accept derogations from the law, that has always been in the regulation, but to seek to define shechita, our religious practice, is absurd.

“The European Court of Justice’s decision to enforce the ban on non-stun slaughter in the Flanders and Wallonia regions of Belgium will be felt by Jewish communities across the continent. The bans have already had a devastating impact on the Belgian Jewish community, causing supply shortages during the pandemic, and we are all very aware of the precedent this sets which challenges our rights to practise our religion.

“Historically, bans on religious slaughter have always been associated with the far-right and population control, a trend that is clearly documented a can be traced back to bans in Switzerland in the 1800s to prevent Jewish immigration from Russia and the Pogroms, to the bans in Nazi Germany and as recently as 2012, attempts to ban religious slaughter in the Netherlands were publicly promoted as a method of stopping Islam spreading to the country. We now face a situation where, with no consultation of the local Jewish community, a ban has been implemented and the implications on the Jewish community will be long lasting.

“We are told by European leaders that they want Jewish communities to live and be successful in Europe, but they provide no safeguards for our way of life. Europe needs to reflect on the type of continent it wants to be. If values like freedom of religion and true diversity are integral, than the current system of law does not reflect that and needs to be urgently reviewed. 

“We will continue to work with representatives of the Belgian Jewish community to offer our support in any way that we can.”

Opinion poll on slaughter 
Summary of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) case C-336/19
Amicus Curiae on CJEU case
Advocate General opinion

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Animal welfare

Time to listen to citizens and trust technology when it comes to slaughter

Guest contributor



The conversation on slaughter without stunning is bouncing around Europe for different reasons: animal welfare, religion, economy. The practice means killing animals while still fully conscious and it is used in some religious traditions, such as the Jewish and Muslim ones, to produce respectively kosher and halal meat, writes Reineke Hameleers.

The Polish parliament and senate are voting on the Five for animals bill, which, among other measures, includes a restriction on the possibility of ritual slaughter. Jewish communities and politicians across Europe are calling on Polish authorities to scrap the ban on kosher meat exports (Poland is one of the biggest European exporters of kosher meat).

The request though doesn’t take into account what EU Citizens, Polish included, have just expressed in the opinion poll Eurogroup for Animals recently released. The majority clearly supports higher animal welfare standards declaring that: it should be mandatory to make animals unconscious before they are slaughtered (89%); countries should be able to adopt additional measures that ensure higher animal welfare standards (92%); the EU should require all animals to be stunned before being slaughtered, even for religious reasons (87%); the EU should prioritise funding for alternative practices for slaughtering animals in humane ways that are also accepted by religious groups (80%).

While the results unequivocally show the civil society position against slaughter without stunning, this should not be interpreted as a threat to religious freedom, as some try to picture it. It represents the level of attention and care Europeans have towards animals, which is also enshrined in the EU Treaty defining animals as sentient beings.

The EU law says that all animals must be made unconscious before being killed, with exceptions in the context of some religious practices. Several countries like Slovenia, Finland, Denmark, Sweden and two regions of Belgium (Flanders and Wallonia) adopted stricter rules with no exceptions to the mandatory stunning of animals before slaughter.

In Flanders, as well as in Wallonia, the parliament adopted the law almost unanimously (0 votes against, only a few abstentions). The law was the result of a long process of democratic decision making which included hearings with the religious communities, and received cross-party support. It is key to understand that the ban refers to slaughter without stunning and it is not a ban on religious slaughter.

These rules aim at ensuring higher welfare for animals being slaughtered in the context of religious rites. Indeed the European Food Safety Authority concluded that serious welfare problems are highly likely to occur after the throat cut, since the animal - still conscious - can feel anxiety, pain and distress. Also, the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) acknowledged that “particular methods of slaughter prescribed by religious rites that are carried out without pre-stunning are not tantamount, in terms of serving a high level of animal welfare at the time of killing”.

Nowadays reversible stunning allows for the protection of animals being slaughtered in the context of religious rites without interfering with the rites per se. It causes unconsciousness through electronarcosis, so the animals are still alive when their throat is cut.

Acceptance of stunning methods is increasing among religious communities in Malaysia, India, Middle- East, Turkey, Germany, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

Given what citizens expressed in the opinion poll, and the possibilities offered by technology, European Member States should be able to adopt additional measures that ensure higher animal welfare standards, like the Belgian region of Flanders which introduced such a measure in 2017 and is now threatened to have it reversed by the CJEU.

It’s time for our leaders to base their decisions on sound science, unequivocal case law, accepted alternatives to slaughter without stunning, and strong democratic, moral values. It’s time to pave the way to real progress in the EU instead of turning the clock backwards.

The opinions expresed in the above article are those of the author alone, and do not reflect any opinions on the part of EU Reporter.

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Animal welfare

Moving to cage-free farming as part of sustainability transition can be win-win for environment and animals, finds new think tank report

EU Reporter Correspondent



Ending the caging of animals, as part of a transformative change in animal agriculture, could make farming more sustainable and could bring better rural jobs, finds a new report by a sustainability think tank working on EU policy.

In the new report launched today (13 October), the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) explored the environmental and societal benefits and trade-offs of ending the use of cages in the production of egg-laying hens, pigs and rabbits in the EU.

If paired with ambitious actions on addressing overconsumption, reducing protein imports and implementing large-scale organic conversion of animal farming, a cage-free farming transition could trigger the much needed environmental and socio-economic transformation, finds the report.

The study was commissioned by Compassion in World Farming to provide an evidence-based assessment and inform EU policymakers ahead of a key decision on whether to end the use of cages in animal farming. Earlier this month, the European Commission received a European Citizens’ Initiative signed by 1.4 million people across Europe calling for a phaseout of the use of cages in EU farming. The Commission has six months to respond to the ‘End the Cage Age’ initiative.

Olga Kikou, Head of Compassion in World Farming EU and one of the organizers of the Initiative, said: “Factory farming is one of the worst offenders for the systemic breakdown of our one and only planet. The cage is not only a symbol for our broken food and farming system but it is one of the key pillars that keep this outdated model alive. We need a food and farming revolution. Let’s start by ending the cage age!”

Elisa Kollenda, policy analyst at the Institute for European Environmental Policy, said: “Our research finds that advancing a transition towards cage-free farming as part of a wider sustainability transition can be a win-win for both environmental sustainability and animal welfare. The recent Farm to Fork Strategy signals the need to review and improve farm animal welfare legislation alongside many other steps to improve the sustainability of production and consumption. The linkages between the two need to be clearer in the debate.”

  1. For over 50 years, Compassion in World Farming has campaigned for farm animal welfare and sustainable food and farming. We have over one million supporters and representations in 11 European countries, the US, China and South Africa.
  1. The Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) is a sustainability think-tank with over 40 years of experience, committed to advancing evidence-based and impact-driven sustainability policy across the EU and the world. IEEP works with a range of policymakers, from local to European level, NGOs and the private sector, to provide evidence-based policy research, analysis and advice. IEEP’s work is independent and informed by a diverse set of views, with the aim of advancing knowledge and raising awareness; and to promoting evidence-based policymaking for greater sustainability in Europe.
  1. Today, on 13 October 2020, IEEP presented the Transitioning towards cage-free farming in the EU report to representatives of the European Parliament and the European Commission at a webinar organised by Compassion in World Farming.

IEEP conducted an independent study, commissioned by Compassion in World Farming, on how a transition to cage-free farming could support a sustainability transition in the animal farming sector while delivering wider positive benefits to society. The report presents a selection of policy tools and stakeholder actions that would support a transition to a cage-free EU, compiled through stakeholder consultations and a literature review. It describes three scenarios of how both farm animal welfare and the sustainability of production and consumption can be addressed simultaneously. Greater implications for almost all aspects of sustainability can be expected if the cage-free transition is accompanied by changes in the scale of consumption and production of animal products and if there is a substantial departure from the current large-scale use of concentrated feeds, including imported proteins.

  1. On 2 October 2020, the European Commission received a European Citizens’ Initiative signed by 1.4 million people in 28 European countries which calls on the EU to phase out the use of cages for farmed animals. End the Cage Age’ is only the sixth European Citizens’ Initiative to reach the required threshold of 1 million signatures since the first Initiative was launched over eight years ago. It is the very first successful Initiative for farmed animals.

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