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Why are live exports continuing now?
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  1. Josh Loeb

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The issue of live exports has long been controversial but has assumed new potency in light of the Covid-19 crisis.

Across Europe, where movement of people and goods has been ‘free and frictionless’ for decades because of the EU, movement restrictions suddenly sprang up last month in a bid to slow the spread of Covid-19. This led to long queues of traffic, according to the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe (FVE).

From the border between Lithuania and Poland came reports of jams stretching for 40 km. On the German side of the border with Poland there were queues of 65 km – and 18-hour wait times. The local fire brigade reportedly had to be called in to provide water to livestock.

While the increased journey times for livestock have thankfully eased in recent days, at the EU’s external borders logjam is still apparently the norm.

That’s because border security at the EU’s outer frontiers has also been tightened to try to prevent outsiders from importing the virus (a case, perhaps, of trying to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted?). Again, this hardening of borders has led to longer journey times for animals.

As Vet Record reports this week (see p 396), more than 30 organisations last month signed a strongly worded letter to the European Commission, the body that runs the EU, accusing it, essentially, of hypocrisy. A similar follow-up letter was sent this week.

The welfare groups accused the commission of waxing lyrical about animal welfare, while at the same time allowing livestock to be stuck in lorries for long periods of time.

Animal sentience is enshrined in the EU’s constitution, but is the commission now simply ignoring its own words?

The commission says it has not been made aware of ‘major’ problems for animals at borders. And, in fairness, the welfare of livestock in transit is difficult to independently verify from afar.

But what is clear is that a ‘business as usual’ approach to international trade will simply not do at this time when it comes to livestock. If anything, the difficulties involved in verifying welfare remotely makes this even more the case now.

When much of Europe is in lockdown, what exactly is the justification for transporting livestock alive across large distances?

How – if at all – will welfare be safeguarded?

Since neither vets nor police will have time during the Covid-19 crisis to enforce compliance with rules on welfare during transport, how – if at all – will welfare be safeguarded?

Couldn’t livestock be transported ‘on the hook’ (ie, as meat) rather than ‘on the hoof’ in most cases anyway?

Controversy over live exports hits something of a raw nerve for the EU because free movement of goods is one of the bloc’s foundational tenets.

But whatever else these freedoms may have achieved, they have facilitated longer journey times for livestock – since it’s simply easier to move animals far greater distances without hindrance. (It is important to note that the latest border delays are nothing to do with Brexit, since trade changes have not kicked in yet.)

What outrages welfare groups most of all, however, is that live exports from the EU to non-EU countries, such as countries in the Middle East, are continuing in spite of the pandemic.

Put bluntly, if allowing free movement of livestock within a geopolitical entity spanning more than 1000 miles, and onward transport to countries beyond it, was questionable before the Covid-19 crisis began, then it seems nothing less than absurd now. Are these journeys really essential?

The FVE has long urged the EU to embrace its position that animals should be reared as close as possible to the premises on which they are born and should be slaughtered as close as possible to the point of production. That is a sensible stance.

Perhaps this crisis is an opportunity to embrace that spirit of localism.

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