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Paris, 23 February 2004

Byrne calls for worldwide animal welfare standards Commission granted official observer status at OIE

The European Commission obtained today official observer status within the OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health) at the first ever global conference on animal welfare bringing together the 166 member countries of the OIE and various OIE-affiliated international organisations. While the EU has always been involved in the work of the OIE, the observer status will now enable the Commission to advance the EU´s view on all international animal health and welfare issues. At the opening of the conference Commissioner David Byrne promised to continue to actively support the OIE in its activities and welcomed the initiative to organise for the first time a global conference on animal welfare. "Getting animal welfare recognised at an international level is important for European citizens. The EU supports every step to achieve higher animal welfare standards not just within the EU but worldwide."

Animal welfare standards are not defined at an international level except in Conventions by the Council of Europe and some multilateral agreements. However current WTO provisions take little account of animal welfare and the EU can therefore not require its own animal welfare standards to be respected in third countries. Nevertheless the Doha 2001 conclusions placed non-trade concerns, including animal welfare, firmly on the agenda for future WTO agricultural negotiations. "Any moves to develop international standards have our wholehearted support", said David Byrne, "The significance of this conference should not be underestimated. It marks the very first opportunity for stakeholders, scientists and governments to debate animal welfare issues in a worldwide perspective".

European citizens care deeply about animal welfare and the unanimous decision of the OIE member countries to address animal welfare at this international level confirms the worldwide interest in this issue. The Commission endorses the OIE's approach of basing animal welfare guidelines and standards on the best available science and setting up expert groups to advise on the specific issues. Creating guidelines and standards at the OIE level is likely to facilitate their international acceptance. Recently OIE expert groups have been working to develop international standards and guidelines on the welfare of animals during land and sea transport, humane slaughter for consumption and the killing of animals for disease control and these are foreseen to be completed by 2005. Separate guiding principles on animal welfare are due to be adopted at the General Session of the OIE International Committee in May 2004. However OIE Member countries are free to maintain their own standards if these are higher, i.e. the EU standards.

David Byrne added: "I should mention the main criticism often voiced by producers and certain sections of the food industry that higher welfare standards lead to higher production and supply costs. The experience within Europe has shown that in many cases there are no significant additional costs in improving animal protection.

Indeed if such costs are experienced, they can be more than recovered by the price differential of superior more 'animal welfare friendly' products, provided that these are effectively marketed and consumers properly informed. It is of obvious importance that markets evolve and adapt in response to consumer demands. It is encouraging in this regard to see, for example, the shift towards the use of free range eggs by some of the international fast food chains. "

New observer status for the European Commission

The OIE conference also marks the official confirmation of the European Commission's newly acquired observer status within the OIE. This will allow both organisations to agree joint measures to improve international co-operation on animal health and welfare, combating zoonoses and ensuring the sanitary safety of food products of animal origin. The Commission's observer status will further strengthen the relationship between the Commission and the OIE through reciprocal agreements to keep each other informed and work together on matters of common interest.

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