How Europe squanders its animal welfare opportunity

How Europe squanders its animal welfare opportunity

More than a hundred European Parliament lawmakers formally asked European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a September 6th open letter to make animal welfare a priority, but it seems increasingly unlikely that this will occur.

The Financial Times recently reported that the EU is currently considering tossing out much-anticipated regulation designed to improve the animal welfare of the farming industry in the bloc. According to officials, the hesitation to move
forward with the proposals comes from concerns that the higher standards could spark food inflation.

Unsurprisingly, the prospect of higher prices is unattractive to EU politicians as Europe has been plunged into a cost-of-living crisis since the war in Ukraine began.

In 2021, the Commission agreed to ban cages for certain farm animals such as rabbits, layer breeders, broiler breeders, ducks, and others. The legislative timeline was set so that by 2023 the proposal would be developed and the Commission would evaluate the feasibility of enforcement from 2027 onwards.

The Commission agreement was largely pushed forward by the European Citizens’ Initiative ‘End the Cage Age’. Not only did 1.4 million European citizens support the initiative, but it also enjoyed support from major players in the agri-food sector like Nestlé, Unilever, and Mondelēz International.

Strange priorities in Brussels

Von der Leyen’s recent State of the Union address lasted more than an hour, but she did not make a single mention of animal welfare.

Three officials with knowledge of the subject said that the matter had been dropped altogether – a deep disappointment to European animal welfare advocates. Indeed, the now potentially indefinitely tabled proposal embodies a larger question
of whether the bloc’s agri-food policy priorities line up with Europeans’.

Rather than pursue a policy area that a whopping 94% of European support, the Commission is focussing its energy on far more misguided priorities.

European policymakers seem to have given far more attention, for example, to faltering efforts to harmonize front of pack (FOP) nutritional labels, than to address animal welfare, despite the fact that animal welfare is an issue that effectively transcends party lines and can often be a unifying force as it enjoys widespread support from both the industry and the European population.

Joe Moran, director of European Policy for Four Paws, an animal welfare campaign group, offered a dire warning: “Animal welfare is the last straw in the wind that is blowing the Green Deal to bits.”

In this context, it seems unnerving that Brussels continues to give so much bandwidth not only to the FOP debate, but also to the most widely propagated label at the centre of it – the French- designed Nutri-Score. Nutri-Score is based on an algorithm intended to rank foods from good to bad by giving foods a letter grade (A-E) and slapping on for good measure the traffic light colours (green to red). Nutri-Score is seemingly easy to understand, but its misleading nature is the
reason the label receives sustained criticism. The issue with the label is that the algorithm at its core is based on faulty assumptions and simplistic views of things like salt, fat, and sugar.

For instance, oils are routinely classified between C and E and worse, which is incomprehensible considering their levels of essential fatty acids, omega-6, omega-3, and saturated fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are vital to maintaining health as they support heart health and lower triglycerides.

This year Nutri-Score, celebrates a decade of trial and mostly error. While there is always room for learning, what is deeply concerning about Nutri-Score is that in the past ten years, the algorithm has undergone cosmetic changes but the underlying issues have not been resolved.

Its different iterations have been in response to consumer and expert criticism, attempting to adapt the algorithm to public opinion rather than being firmly rooted in the scientific method. At a certain point, when a system proves repeatedly its propensity to confuse consumers rather than enlighten them it must be time for the bloc to consider its utility and the option of moving away from Nutri-Score.

On a member-state level, this is already happening. Romania has already banned Nutri-Score arguing that the label could not accurately inform consumers. Recently, a Romanian court even ruled Nutri-Score to be “a deceptive commercial practice, intended to convince buyers to buy products that they would otherwise have ignored”, leading consumers’
behavior to be distorted for the worse. As a consequence, supermarket chain Mega Image was fined for introducing the FOP label.

Weighing the costs

It seems clear that FOP labels’ time as a calling card for bloc harmonisation has come to an end. Member states are starting to recognise the inutility of the label and prefer to go through the bureaucratic and logistical process of rolling back the FOP rather than mislead their constituents.

With each decision to walk away from FOP, the Commission finds itself further and further from harmonisation – and in opposition to popular demand.

Thus, as the Commission looks for a new pet proposal, the animal welfare proposal would be one worth considering. While imalprice is often evoked as a point of objection when it comes to policy progression, the calculation is far from unpayable.

The estimated price of the proposed animal welfare has been calculated to the cent. A ban on killing day-old male chicks would add up to an additional 60 cents per dozen eggs and increasing the space where broiler chickens are housed (currently minimum requirements are the size of an A4 piece of paper), would add 12 cents.

For farmers, these proposals strike a reasonable tone. Pekka Pesonen, the secretary general of EU farmers’ group Copa-Cogeca, told the Financial Times that it would support many of the changes mentioned in the proposals as long as financial assistance was put in place and imported meat was held to the same standards. Thus, when evaluating costs, it seems more than reasonable to pursue animal welfare and call Nutri-Score what it is – a poor investment that didn’t work out.


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