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European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection

Animal welfare: Higher standards show their merits

EuroGroup for Animal Welfare

Brussels, 30 November 2001

Mme President, ladies and gentlemen

I am very pleased at the opportunity to address you on behalf of the European Commission. It is a good opportunity for me to speak to you on European issues generally and on animal welfare issues in particular.

I greatly value good relations with the NGO movement. You are an important bridge between the Community institutions and the European public. This is especially the case in relation to animal welfare.

I believe that we have a constructive relationship, in large part due to the role played by David Wilkins. He has pushed your interests very hard at the Community level.

However, he has done so in a very co-operative fashion working with the Commission rather than against it. This is my own approach to doing business co-operation rather than confrontation.

Such an approach is especially important at the EU level. The range of interests involved is so varied that agreement must be consensus driven. The whole process of European integration works on this principle.

European integration has of course progressed very rapidly in recent decades. The Community has grown from 6 to 15 Member States. There is a very good prospect that up to ten new Member States will join in the next several years.

The Community has also greatly increased in the scope of its powers and competence. What was once essentially a purely economic entity is now much more. The Single Market is completed. We are about to introduce a single currency, the EURO, in 12 Member States.

And Member States now share powers in a wide range of fields that were once left to national authorities. Environment, transport, energy and increasingly health policy are examples.

I firmly believe that the Commission has done a good job in this process and that these initiatives have been to the benefit of the general public. However, it is clear that we have been less successful in convincing the European public of the merits of "Europe".

Many people find "Europe" too remote from their everyday lives. They find it too bureaucratic and too focused on issues that matter little to them. It is difficult to bring home the benefits of key initiatives such as EMU, the Single Market, increased trade liberalisation and global agreement on Climate Change.

One of the keys to establishing greater public confidence in "Europe" is in my area of responsibility health and consumer protection. The areas that fall within my control directly impact on the lives of our citizens.

Look at the issues which have kept me very busy over the past very busy year:

  • Food Safety;

  • BSE;

  • Foot and Mouth Disease;

  • GMOs;

  • Tobacco regulation and subsidies;

  • Bio-terrorism;

  • Communicable Diseases like AIDs and Influenza;

  • The safety of blood and blood products;

  • Pesticides.

I could go on. These are issues which people can relate to in their everyday lives. It is hugely important that they can have confidence in how they are handled by the EU.

This brings me to the issue of animal welfare. It is also an issue that also matters greatly to the public. This is clear to me from my postbag and email intray where there is a huge volume of correspondence.

Tens of thousands of citizens take the trouble to contact the Commission. Even allowing for chain letters and mass mail shots, this represents a huge level of interest. There is also, of course, a very strong NGO movement in the field, as is evident from this assembly.

Legitimate questions can, therefore, be asked as to how the EU has responded to your concerns. I know that your expectations are high it is your business to put the Community institutions under pressure to do more and to do it better.

Judged against such high expectations, I believe that we have made good progress. Let me look first at the successes. First, there is now a substantial body of legislation on animal welfare. I will spare you the details as you are experts in the field and are very familiar with our legal provisions.

But, this body of legislation is an achievement given that animal welfare was hardly an issue on the European agenda until recent years. This has changed radically and I think that it can only continue to go in one direction up.

The great advantage of Community legislation is that it ties Member States into a system of obligations and responsibilities that they cannot easily escape.

The protocol on animal welfare in the Treaty of Amsterdam has ensured that there will be no turning back in this process. Animal welfare is part of the Community agenda and it is here to stay.

The challenge to you and to your organisations is to exploit this Community role. You too have your successes and failures in promoting your policies. I believe that the Community dimension can only help you in pushing your agenda for greater respect of animal welfare and more ambition in making it a priority.

A further success at the Community level is that there is now a well defined framework for dealing with animal welfare issues. The Commission has put in place its own structures within my Directorate General.

These structures include the legislative function within my DG, the Scientific committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare and the staff in the Food and Veterinary Office assigned specifically to animal welfare issues.

Resources, especially staff resources, are a problem. But, that is a constraint with which we have to live until the Commission is provided with the resources to match the huge range of additional responsibilities placed on it in recent years.

This leads in turn to a further significant success in relation to animal welfare. There is now a much greater political consensus on the need to take the subject seriously.

This is very clear to me from my own business diary. Animal welfare issues were the subject of very frequent debates in both the Agriculture Council and the European Parliament throughout this year.

This reflects the sensitivity of the issues and the relatively heavy agenda of Commission initiatives on animal welfare. There are very few of the monthly meetings of the Agriculture Council which do not include discussions and debate on Commission proposals on animal welfare.

Progress has been made this year on a number of key areas with which you will be familiar. Let me give you some examples:

  • the Commission proposals for the abolition of individual sow stalls and for key improvements in the conditions in which pigs are reared were adopted.

  • Similarly, discussions are continuing on our proposals for improved ventilation and humidity controls in animal transporters. I will be encouraging the Council to give priority to reaching final agreement.

  • the Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare will shortly act on the Commission request for its opinion on key issues including densities and travelling times. I have already given a commitment to act on this opinion.

  • We have made very real progress with the candidate countries for accession to the EU on animal transport. Hopefully, the very disturbing reports on the unacceptable conditions in which animals, especially horses, have been transported to the EU will become rarer and rarer.

  • The Council in October mandate the Commission to represent the Community in the Council of Europe negotiations on the International Convention on Animal Transport. This greatly strengthens our hand in international negotiations.

  • A wide consultation is ongoing with all the parties involved in the EU to elaborate the Commission proposal in relation to standards for the protection of chickens kept for meat production. A proposal should be ready during the second half of next year.

  • The Scientific Committee has adopted an opinion on the welfare of cattle kept for beef production and will probably finalise its work on the welfare of fur animals before the end of the year. These both represent important areas of concern.

There have also of course been disappointments. We are making slow progress in making animal welfare an issue at the international level.

The developing countries in particular view the issue as at best a protectionist agenda aimed at creating obstacles to exports to the EU. Or, at worst, as an affront to the far greater challenge in raising living standards for their own human populations.

I believe that they are mistaken on both counts but we have to realise the sensitivity of the issue for these countries.

I believe that we have a duty and a responsibility to press for recognition of these standards in the international context. This should be done both on purely ethical grounds and in recognition of the higher costs which these standards entail for producers and consumers in the EU.

An obstacle to higher international standards is the absence of an appropriate body open to all Members of the WTO where information and experiences could be exchanged on animal welfare. This should change with the proposal of the OIE in Paris for a five year work programme that includes animal welfare questions.

This is the first time that such a broad based international forum as the OIE has decided to address these issues. The Commission strongly supports this initiative and intends to actively participate in this future reflection.

Another recent disappointment was the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the EU and the resulting mass slaughtering of animals. I am very concerned annoyed at the allegations that the Commission ignored animal welfare considerations in the handling of the outbreak.

There is a major conference on FMD which will be taking place in Brussels next week. This will provide me with the opportunity to fully outline the Commission position on the handling of the crisis and the lessons to be learned.

Following the conference the Commission will present a proposal for a major new regulation on foot and mouth disease. This will allow for an even wider debate on the future approach towards this disease.

The biggest source of concern to me, however, continues to be the serious problems in ensuring that Member States correctly implement Community law on animal welfare. These problems are brought to light by the inspections carried out by the Commission's Food and Veterinary Office.

I often find it frustrating to hear demands for new initiatives when the single biggest immediate and practical measure to promote animal welfare would be the strict implementation of the existing legislation.

I know from my post bag that you would like to see the Commission take legal proceedings much quicker and more often against the Member States concerned. This is of course what we are already doing in a number of cases and are considering in a number of others.

However, I will not hide behind the cases where we are engaged in a legal process. It is important to highlight the risks of rushing too quickly to the Courts. Such a course of action has its dangers. It would be slow to deliver results as legal proceedings can take several years to conclude.

It might also fail as it is not evident that the Court would draw the conclusion that a Member State was in breach of its Community obligations on the basis of sporadic incidents reported in one or a number of reports.

And, it would also represent a departure from the Commission's efforts to work with Member States rather than against them. I am not in the business of forcing change on Member States.

This is the case not only for animal welfare but throughout my area of responsibility. I follow this approach not out of a fear of confrontation but because of my conviction that we must work through consensus. As I said in my opening remarks, that is the nature of the Commission and the EU generally.

It is also the approach that works best. As I have stated many times before, it greatly improves the prospects for real progress. We simply cannot force improved standards on Member States. You will know this from your own experience in your own countries.

Instead, higher standards must be "sold" on their merits. And these merits are very strong. There has to be a greater effort to create a virtuous cycle where higher standards are followed because they are what is ethically justified, because they are what the public demands and because they are seen to make good economic sense.

This cycle is beginning to emerge. It would have been unthinkable a decade ago to witness support, often strong support, in the Agriculture Council for higher standards. Politicians are responding to political signals from their electorates.

So also are farmers and the food industry. Higher standards are generally seen as a cost. That is changing as more and more consumers are prepared to pay for assurances that what they are eating meets acceptable standards. There are competitive advantages to be had from providing these reassurances.

It will have to change even quicker, however, if more progress is to be made in winning over farmers to ever higher standards. A complaint I encounter again and again from farmers and their representatives is that consumers are less willing to pay higher prices for higher standards that the surveys suggest.

I am convinced that this will change. Consumers want to know where their food has come from. How it has been produced and under what conditions. And how the animals concerned have been treated.

The Commission fully supports this process. I made it a priority in the White Paper on Food Safety to better integrate animal welfare into food policy. Similarly, I intend that animal welfare issues should be included in the tasks of the European Food Safety Authority.

In conclusion, there is a lot of scope for further progress in the years ahead. It is my hope that the Commission can count on the continued support of the NGO movement and of the EuroGroup in particular in the years ahead. We have good intentions. Hopefully, we can deliver on them and create a better world for animals in the process.

Mme President, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your attention and good luck with your future work.

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