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Animal welfare and protection: EU laws explained

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Cute close up of European wild catEuropean wild cat © AdobeStock/creativenature.nl 

The EU has some of world's highest animal welfare standards. Find out how the legislation protects wildlife, pets as well as farm and laboratory animals.

The European Union has advocated animal welfare for more than 40 years and is widely recognised as a global leader, with some of the world’s best animal welfare standards. EU rules have also positively influenced legislation in non-EU countries. They mainly concern farm animals (on the farm, during transport and at slaughter), but also wildlife, laboratory animals and pets.

Farm animals’ welfare

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The first EU rules protecting farm animals date back to the 1970s. The 1998 directive for the protection of farmed animals established general standards for the protection of all animals kept for the production of food, wool, skin, fur or other farming purposes - including fish, reptiles and amphibians - and is based on the European Convention for the Protection of Animals kept for Farming Purposes of 1978.

EU rules on animal welfare reflect the so-called five freedoms:
  • Freedom from hunger and thirst
  • Freedom from discomfort
  • Freedom from pain, injury and disease
  • Freedom to express normal behaviour
  • Freedom from fear and distress

EU rules for the protection and welfare of animals during transport were approved in 2004. However, in a resolution adopted on 14 February 2019, Parliament called for better enforcement, sanctions and reduced journey times.

On 19 June 2020 MEPs set up an inquiry committee to look into alleged breaches in the application of EU animal welfare rules during transport within and outside the EU.

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Other EU rules set welfare standards for farm animals during stunning and slaughter, as well as for breeding conditions for specific animal categories such as calves, pigs and laying hens.

In October 2018, MEPs adopted a new regulation on veterinary medicinal products to curb the use of medicines to compensate for poor conditions or to make animals grow faster.

In line with the presentation of the new Farm to Fork Strategy for a more sustainable agriculture, the European Commission is currently evaluating all EU legislation on the welfare of farmed animals.

Wildlife protection

The 500 wild birds naturally occurring in the EU are protected by the Birds Directive, whilst the Habitats Directive aims to ensure the conservation of rare, threatened or endemic animal species and characteristic habitat types.

The EU Pollinators Initiative was launched in 2018 to tackle the decline of wild pollinating insects, especially bees. Parliament called for a further reduction of pesticides and more funds for research. In a report adopted in January 2018, Parliament had already said regional and local bees varieties should be better protected.

Whales and dolphins are protected from capture and killing in EU waters. In addition, the EU has always been a defender of the full implementation of the moratorium on commercial whaling in place since 1986.

An EU regulation bans the trade in seal products.

There are also rules on trapping methods, prohibiting the use of leghold traps to catch wild animals in the EU and setting humane standards.

The EU implements and goes beyond the provisions of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) through its Wildlife Trade Regulations to ensure trade in wildlife products does not lead to species becoming endangered.

In May 2020, the Commission presented an ambitious new Biodiversity Strategy as part of the EU Green Deal.

Zoos

EU rules on keeping wild animals in zoos seek to strengthen their role in the conservation of biodiversity and set standards for protection measures, including appropriate accommodation for animals.

Animal testing for scientific purposes

The EU has created a legal framework that regulates animal studies for the development of new medicines, for physiological studies and for testing of food additives or chemicals. The rules are based on the principle of the three R’s:

  • Replacement (fostering the use of alternative methods)
  • Reduction (trying to use fewer animals for the same objective)
  • Refinement (efforts to minimise pain and suffering)

Animal testing on cosmetics and the marketing of such products is prohibited in the EU. In a resolution adopted in 2018, Parliament called for a global ban on animal testing for cosmetics.

Pet protection

To clamp down on the illegal trade in dogs and cats, Parliament called for an EU-wide action plan, tougher sanctions and mandatory registration in a resolution adopted on 12 February 2020.

To address the concerns of Europeans who consider pets as part of their families, cat and dog fur has been banned in the EU since 2008. The legislation bans the placing on the market and the import to or export of cat and dog fur and of all products containing such fur.

Thanks to harmonized EU rules on travelling with pets, people are free to move with their furry friends within the European Union. The pet passport or the animal health certificate is the only requirement for dogs, cats and ferrets to travel across EU borders, with certain exceptions.

Animal testing

European Parliament to vote on animal-free research, testing and education

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Anyone who is familiar with Ralph, a test rabbit mascot that is subject to Draize eye irritancy test in cosmetics labs and suffers from blindness, will wonder how such cruelty is still acceptable in an age of advanced science and technology. The Save Ralph video went viral all over the world and became most probably the reason why Mexico recently joined the ranks of states, which banned animal testing for cosmetics. So did the EU back in 2013. The EU plans to go even further by adopting a resolution on “a co-ordinated Union-level action to facilitate the transition to innovation without the use of animals in research, testing and education” this week (15 September), writes Eli Hadzhieva.

Although the EU encourages the use of non-animal methods, such as the new organ-on-chip technology, computer simulations and 3-D cultures of human cells, research shows that archaic methods, such as “50 percent lethal dose” killing half of the millions of test animals, are still widely in use. Moreover, evidence growingly shows that some animals, such as rabbits and rodents, are completely different species from humans to be seen as reliable proxies for the protection of human health from chemical risks. For example, drugs, such as thalidomide, TGN1412 or fialuridine, aimed at treating morning sickness, leukaemia and Hepatitis B respectively, proved totally safe for animals but could not be tolerated by humans.

According to the European Commission, the European chemicals strategy for sustainability increased support for use of Non-Animal Methodologies (NAMs) in Chemicals Risk Assessment, especially with several Horizon 2020 projects (ASPIS Cluster comprising RISK-HUNT3R, ONTOX and PrecisionTOX projects), the upcoming REACH and Cosmetics Regulation revisions, the new project of the European Partnership for Alternative Approaches on NAMs use in risk assessment, PARC with the objective of transitioning to next generation risk assessment and a Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda. The global acceptance of non-animal and innovative approaches to chemical safety is also high on the OECD agenda.

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A webinar organised on 9 September by EU-ToxRisk and PATROLS, two multi-stakeholder projects funded by the EU’s H2020 Program, illustrated the limitations of the existing in vitro (test-tube experiments) and in silico (computer-simulated experiments) hazard detection systems while showcasing a new toolbox to conduct animal-free assessments for chemicals and nanomaterials. EU-ToxRisk project coordinator Bob van der Water from Leiden University highlighted his vision “to drive a paradigm shift in toxicology towards an animal-free, mechanism-based integrated approach to chemical safety assessment” through an established NAM toolbox based on in vitro and in silico tools and novel next generation NAM toolbox components. He emphasised advanced novel test systems, such as CRISPR-based fluorescent reporters in stem cells, stem-cell derived multi-liver-cell model, diseased liver micro-tissues and four-organ-chip while highlighting that NAMs should rapidly be integrated into regulatory testing frameworks.

Shareen Doak, the Coordinator of PATROLS from Swansea University highlighted the knowledge gaps regarding long term effects of realistic engineered nanomaterial (ENM) exposures for human and health environment while demonstrating innovative methods, such as extrinsic ENM properties, advanced ecotoxicity tests, heterotypic in vitro models of the lung, GIT and liver etc. “These methods are tailored to better understand human and environmental hazards and should be implemented as part of the EU’s safe and sustainable-by-design strategy to minimise the need for animal testing”, she said.

“The biggest challenge is the acceptance and the implementation of NAMs. Standard validation requirements are too long and the applicability domain of NAMs needs to be established considering new emerging technologies”, she added.

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In an earlier statement, the ASPIS Cluster expressed support for the motion for resolution of the European Parliament describing it as “timely to accelerate an animal-free transition and meet EU ambition to lead on the next generation for risk assessment in Europe and worldwide” all by welcoming EU efforts “which will translate into regulatory and industrial practices that will better protect human health and the ecosystems, by enabling us to identify, classify and ultimately remove hazardous substances from the environment”.

The moderator of the webinar MEP Tilly Metz (Greens, Luxembourg), also shadowing the European Parliament’s resolution, said that she hopes that the final resolution will contain the following elements: “Concrete steps to phase out animal testing, precise roadmaps and studies, a coordinated approach by EU agencies, such as the European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemicals Agency and fast implementation of new advanced methods”.

This gives a lot of food for thought for policymakers in a make-or-break moment for Ralph and his animal and human friends. It’s time that words translate into action and the regulatory environment evolves in line with new realities on the ground while giving a breathing space to these promising and safe animal-free technologies by adopting a dynamic approach to accept and use them. This will not only allow us to live up to the zero-pollution ambition in the Green Deal but will also deliver “a toxic-free environment” both for animals and humans.

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Animal welfare

Use of antibiotics in animals is decreasing

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Use of antibiotics has decreased and is now lower in food-producing animals than in humans, says the PDF icon latest report published by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

Taking a One Health approach, the report from the three EU agencies presents data on antibiotic consumption and development of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in Europe for 2016-2018.

The significant fall in antibiotic use in food-producing animals suggests that the measures taken at country level to reduce use are proving to be effective. Use of a class of antibiotics called polymyxins, which includes colistin, nearly halved between 2016 and 2018 in food-producing animals. This is a positive development, as polymyxins are also used in hospitals to treat patients infected with multidrug-resistant bacteria.

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The picture in the EU is diverse – the situation varies significantly by country and by antibiotic class. For example, aminopenicillins, 3rd- and 4th-generation cephalosporins and quinolones (fluoroquinolones and other quinolones) are used more in humans than in food-producing animals, while polymyxins (colistin) and tetracyclines are used more in food-producing animals than in humans.

The link between use of antibiotics and bacterial resistance

The report shows that the use of carbapenems, 3rd- and 4th-generation cephalosporins and quinolones in humans is associated with resistance to these antibiotics in Escherichia coli infections in humans. Similar associations were found for food-producing animals.

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The report also identifies links between antimicrobial consumption in animals and AMR in bacteria from food-producing animals, which in turn is associated with AMR in bacteria from humans. An example of this is Campylobacter spp. bacteria, which are found in food producing animals and cause foodborne infections in humans. Experts found an association between resistance in these bacteria in animals and resistance in the same bacteria in humans.

Fighting AMR through co-operation

AMR is a significant global public health problem that represents a serious economic burden. The One Health approach implemented through the co-operation of EFSA, EMA and ECDC and the results presented in this report call for continued efforts to tackle AMR at national, EU and global level across the healthcare sectors.

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Animal welfare

‘End the Cage Age’ - An historic day for animal welfare

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Věra Jourová, Vice President for Values and Transparency

Today (30 June), the European Commission proposed a legislative response to the ‘End the Cage Age’ European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) supported by over one million Europeans from 18 different states.

The Commission will adopt a legislative proposal by 2023 to prohibit cages for a number of farm animals. The proposal will phase out, and finally prohibit, the use of cage systems for all animals mentioned in the initiative. It will include animals already covered by legislation: laying hens, sows and calves; and, other animals mentioned including: rabbits, pullets, layer breeders, broiler breeders, quail, ducks and geese. For these animals, the Commission has already asked EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) to complement the existing scientific evidence to determine the conditions needed for the prohibition of cages.

As part of its Farm to Fork Strategy, the Commission has already committed to propose a revision of the animal welfare legislation, including on transport and rearing, which is currently undergoing a fitness check, to be finalised by the summer of 2022.

Health and Food Safety Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said: “Today is an historic day for animal welfare. Animals are sentient beings and we have a moral, societal responsibility to ensure that on-farm conditions for animals reflect this. I am determined to ensure that the EU remains at the forefront of animal welfare on the global stage and that we deliver on societal expectations.”

In parallel to the legislation the Commission will seek specific supporting measures in key related policy areas. In particular, the new Common Agricultural Policy will provide financial support and incentives – such as the new eco-schemes instrument – to help farmers upgrade to more animal-friendly facilities in line with the new standards. It will also be possible to use the Just Transition Fund and the Recovery and Resilience Facility to support farmers in the adaptation to cage-free systems.

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