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Standards at slaughter

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EUROPEAN legislation does not make for the lightest of reading but there is no getting away from the fact that its consequences can be profound. This is the case with a proposed regulation on ‘the protection of animals at the time of killing’ which is to be discussed by the European Parliament next month and which, once finalised, could help improve the welfare of animals at slaughter throughout the EU. At present, welfare at slaughter is governed by an EU directive which has not been amended since 1993 despite advances in methods of stunning and slaughter. Standards vary between countries and the fact that a regulation is now being proposed is significant: regulations apply equally across the EU, leaving less room for manoeuvre than directives, which can be implemented differently by each member state.

The regulation has been put forward by the European Commission with the aim of improving animal welfare and ‘harmonisation’ in the internal market. It will apply to farm animals slaughtered for consumption, animals killed for fur, and animals slaughtered in the event of contagious disease outbreaks or on public health or environmental grounds. It will make slaughterhouse operators responsible for animal welfare while giving them greater flexibility in implementing standards in this area. Operators will be required to develop and implement standard operating procedures, appoint an animal welfare officer, and ensure that workers responsible for killing animals are properly qualified and trained and have an appropriate certificate of competence. They will also be expected to monitor the effectiveness of stunning processes, and the proposal includes a list of methods for stunning and killing animals, along with detailed information regarding specifications and requirements. Importantly, a new concept of animal welfare at the time of slaughter incorporates the basic principle that animals should be stunned when killed. However, the proposal also provides for derogations from this requirement for situations in which animals are slaughtered in accordance with religious beliefs.

The European Parliament will be considering the proposal together with a number of amendments proposed by its Agriculture and Rural Development Committee. In most cases these amendments seem to be aimed at strengthening the proposal, although the point is made that meeting the requirements will lead to increased costs and that, unless EU funding is made available, this could present a barrier to effective implementation. The point is also made that the increased costs resulting from higher standards could weaken Europe's competitiveness in the meat sector, and that efforts should be made to establish appropriate standards for products imported into the EU, with imports being allowed only from operators applying similar standards.

Given the sensitivities surrounding the subject, the derogations relating to ritual slaughter are perhaps inevitable, but every effort must be made to keep animal suffering to a minimum. One idea being considered by the Parliament is that meat derived from ritual slaughter should be appropriately labelled, so that consumers will be in a position to choose whether they want to eat meat from animals slaughtered without first being rendered unconscious. This idea is supported by the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe, which considers that, from an animal welfare point of view, slaughtering animals without prior stunning is unacceptable. The FVE, of which the BVA is a member, has suggested a number of amendments to the proposed regulation, which have been made available for consideration by MEPs. One of its concerns is that, in some areas, the requirements may be less stringent than those specified under current rules. For this reason it believes it would be prudent for the regulation to give member states the option of applying stricter rules inside their own country, should they wish to do so.

As is so often the case with European legislation, the devil will be in the detail and much will depend on how effectively the regulation is implemented. Also, this is an area where progress is notoriously slow. Nevertheless, the proposed regulation represents a step in the right direction, with the potential to improve the welfare at slaughter of millions of animals each year.

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