Stop this cruel trade


October 3, 2007 17:36 | by Steve McGiffen

The outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the UK has once again drawn attention to problems which have their origin in the conditions under which farm animals are kept. These conditions are very often not only abysmally cruel, but also injurious both to the health of the animal in question and to anyone who might later eat the unfortunate creature, or anything produced by or from it.

Given that agriculture in Europe floats on a sea of subsidies - and never forget that this means your money and mine - it would be quite easy to improve this situation, simply by making these payments dependent on strict compliance with rules designed to eliminate unnecessary suffering and protect human health and the environment. Use of subsidies to pursue goals which do not relate directly to production levels, known in the EU jargon as 'cross-compliance measures', is permitted under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and would give farmers an incentive to improve their practices.

Unfortunately, existing EU rules represent an attempt to "balance" public concerns over health, as well as sensitivities regarding cruelty to animals, against the corporate hunger for profit. It is, after all, hardly surprising that cruelty to animals is so widespread, when you consider what the owners of capital are happy to do to people. It would, therefore, be bad enough if the EU's inadequate standards were actually enforced. In reality, however, they are widely ignored.

Many of the worst abuses concern the transport of farm animals from one part of the EU to another, or even beyond. The existence of such a trade is an abuse in itself, of course. With rare exceptions, transport of live animals is unnecessary and enforcement of decent standards of treatment would immediately make it cheaper and more profitable to slaughter them before exporting their refrigerated meat.

However, while this trade continues, it must be properly regulated so that maximum journey times are respected. EU law requires that before animals are transported a journey plan be lodged with the relevant authorities, yet from that point on the sector is almost entirely self-policing. Self-policing can only work, if at all, in sectors where most operators obey the rules and stand to lose out if a minority gains a competitive advantage by cutting corners.

This is not the case here. On the contrary, operators, vets and the public authorities seem to be involved in a conspiracy of blind-eye turning. National authorities fear putting their own farmers and food producers at a disadvantage if they enforce the rules and other EU member states do not. A GPS-based system could be centralised, with national authorities being informed of abuses and obliged to act.

Enforcement of the existing rules would be a big step forward, but their inadequacy would mean that animals would continue to suffer. They would also still be exposed to the dangerous pathogens which, as human beings know from direct experience, inevitably afflict mammals when too many are packed together and basic principles of hygiene ignored.

What is needed, as an absolute minimum, is a time limit of eight hours for the transport of animals for slaughter or further fattening. The overcrowding permitted by the current standard must also be addressed, with animals allowed much more space to breathe and move. The transport of very young animals, such as calves under three months of age, should be banned completely.

Under current EU rules the maximum journey time for bovine animals is an appalling 29 hours, after which they must be fed, watered and allowed out into the fresh air before another 29-hour journey is permitted.

Krista van Velzen, a Member of Parliament for the Socialist Party of the Netherlands who has long campaigned for improvements, describes these standards as "good for profit maximalisation, but certainly not for the animals." Arguing that maximum journey times should be far shorter, Van Velzen also wants to see the structure of farm subsidies reformed so that they do not lead to extra and unnecessary journeys, as is the case with subsidies for the export of dairy cows. Rules should also, she says, take into account such possibilities as extreme weather conditions, obliging transports to be suspended, for example during heat waves. Pointing out that abuses are far too widespread to be seen as isolated incidents, Van Velzen adds that . "it's not only a question of checks and controls, but also of sanctions. If the law is being broken, action must be taken."

At least one member state is proving that effective action is indeed possible. In Denmark any breach of the rules leads to immediate withdrawal of the culprit's licence to transport animals. In most other member states, however, transport firms can continue to operate even after serious breaches.

True, the European Commission has promised to address these issues. In an answer to a parliamentary question tabled by UK Green MEP Caroline Lucas in March of last year, Commissioner Kyprianou said that there were plans "to establish a range of maximum and minimum temperatures for long journeys and standards for satellite navigation systems for road vehicles," adding that "the satellite navigation system will facilitate the enforcement of travelling time limits." He also promised to review travelling time limits and loading densities, and pointed out that the stricter enforcement of drivers' hours by tachograph would also have a positive impact.

This would be good news if it showed any sign of producing results, and it is possible that yet another major food scare involving farm animals will focus minds untouched by suffering. What makes me doubt this is not simply scepticism about the European Commission's ability to keep its promises, but that it does not get to the real issue. For however useful GPS or the tachograph might be, they represent technological solutions to what is in reality a political problem.

Food production companies, agribusiness corporations and hauliers represent three of the most influential sectors of capital at EU level. They almost always get their way. And these are people to whom the complaints of greedy shareholders are far more moving to the heart than the baleful lowing of a cow being slowly crushed to death in an overcrowded wagon on a boiling hot day.

Steve McGiffen edits Spectre and writes a monthly column for the Morning Star where this article first appeared.

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