Animal welfare, EFSA opinion on cattle at slaughter. Status quo and prospects

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Animal welfare can – indeed must – also be improved at all stages, post-farming, that lead cattle to the slaughterhouse. And minimizing suffering depends, in almost all cases, on the competence of the staff. This is what EFSA says in its opinion ‘Welfare of cattle at slaughter,’ published on 3.11.20. (1) An analysis of status quo and prospects, to follow.

Cattle at slaughter, 40 risk factors

The European Food Safety Authority identifies 40 risk factors for cattle welfare at slaughter. 39 of the 40 possible causes of distress are attributed to inadequate staffing due to technical inability and excessive fatigue. One only to the wrong design of the structure.

The detailed analysis covers all stages of human activity, from the arrival of cattle at the slaughterhouse to their dissection. This EFSA opinion does not consider the transport of animals from farms to slaughterhouses, which will be addressed in a report updating previous assessments (see next paragraph EFSA and animal welfare, work in progress).

Issues to be addressed

Mismanagement of examined activities can lead to 12 negative consequences on animal welfare. Heat and cold stress, fatigue, prolonged thirst, prolonged hunger primarily. But also impediment and limitation of movement, rest problems, social stress, pain, fear and anxiety. EFSA therefore recommends the adoption of a series of measures to prevent any unnecessary suffering in animals at slaughter. ABC, in brief.

A) Acceptance to the slaughterhouse

Beginning with the arrival of cattle at the plant, employees must check the health condition of the animals, taking into account that the appearance of those visible from outside the vehicle is certainly better than those inside.

‘Cattle should be unloaded as soon as possible, and those with severe pain, signs of illness, or those who cannot move independently, should be inspected and an emergency slaughter procedure should be implemented immediately. (1)

B) Stationing and moving

When stationing EFSA recommends attention to basic measures. First, ensure access to water, adequate space for movement, and protection from adverse weather conditions.

The same care should be taken when moving within the slaughterhouse. In the final stage‘methods of restraint, stunning and slaughter that cause severe pain and fear should not be used.’

C) Stunning and slaughtering

‘Slaughter without stunning should not be practiced. (…) Pre-cut stunning is the only preventive measure for the welfare consequences connected with cutting’ (Welfare of cattle at slaughter, EFSA opinion, 3.11.20).

Stunning-to date excluded from ritual slaughter, even in the EU-is considered essential, by EFSA, to prevent suffering when animals are killed. And in any case, care must be taken both in the containment phase that precedes it and in its execution, which must be immediate and actually suitable for inducing unconsciousness.

EFSA and animal welfare, work in progress

This report follows previous ones on animal welfare at slaughter for poultry (2019), rabbits (January 2020) and pigs (June 2020). In July 2020 the European Commission he asked EFSA for further opinions on welfare during transport and welfare of pigs (by June 2022), welfare of broilers and laying hens (December 2022), welfare of calves (March 2023). (2)

The Authority will also need to update the various opinions on the welfare of different species of animals during transport. And to contribute to the updating of shared practices in OIE(World Animal Health), which already the opinion under review exceeds in emphasizing the due attention to:

– Unloading and moving severely injured cattle,

– Use of painful stimuli to move animals,

– Slaughter without stunning (see above).

Animal welfare and food safety

Reg. EU 2017/625 on official public controls in food safety, as noted, updated the definition of ‘food at risk‘ introduced in Europe by the General Food Law (reg. EC 178/02, Article 14, effective 1.1.05).

Effective 12/14/19 food derived from mistreated animals-i.e., subjected to conditions incompatible not only with EU animal health rules, subject of recent reform, but also with those on animal welfare – qualify as ‘food at risk’ (EU Reg. 2017/625, Art. 3.24). And they must therefore be withdrawn from the market, according to the requirements of the General Food Law (EC Reg. 178/02, Article 19).

European Commission, from words to deeds

The European Commission presented the Farm to Fork strategy, 20.5.20. A broad and redundant document of good intentions, proposed at the same time as the
EU Strategy on Biodiversity
, following the European Green Deal (announced 11.12.19).

From words to actions, the program to reform EU animal welfare rules has been delayed for at least 2 years. Despite the fact that the European Court of Auditors, in its Special Report onAnimal Welfare (2018), had denounced serious shortcomings compared to the minimum standards defined by the OIE. The above three strategies, meanwhile, have been disavowed in the 2021-2027 CAP reform. What then to expect?

The role of consumAtors

ConsumAtors are in fact the only ones who can enforce improvements in animal welfare, through very specific choices. Premising great respect for those who embrace vegetarian and vegan choices, some advice is offered to those who maintain animal products in their diets:

less but better. Plant proteins are suitable for meeting everyone’s nutritional needs, as noted above. Meat consumption can therefore be reduced, but it is necessary to choose products that are sustainable and respect animal welfare as well as quality. Which, logically, have higher prices,

‘antibiotic-free’ at the top of the list. Non-use of antibiotics is the first sign of good animal health. Italy is the first country in the world to have adopted breeding strategies-see the Algatan model-that strengthen animals to the point where they can minimize and even avoid the use of antibiotics. ‘Antibiotic-free’ products (meat, eggs, farmed fish) are increasingly present on the shelf and deserve to be favored both to reward virtuous animal husbandry and to lower the risks of antibiotic resistance,

bio. Animals raised under the organic system are themselves subject to a set of rules that ensure their welfare,

local foods. Mandatory indications of origin on the labels of almost all meats (excluding equine and rabbit meats, as well as ‘meat preparations’) allow an equally important choice to be made. Animals raised and slaughtered in the same country were subjected to shorter transport and less stress.

Italian supply chain. The European Federation of Trade Unions in the Food, Agriculture and Tourism Sectors (EFFAT), in its report 25.6.20, highlighted the exploitation of workers in the meat industries of Germany (the leading producer in the EU), Poland and the Netherlands. Instead, a recent report by government authorities showed widespread meat traceability fraud in France. Choosing Italian meat means placing trust in the veterinary system of official controls that excels globally, as well as contributing to the national GDP.

Perspectives

While waiting for the European legislature to introduce reforms that have been awaited for years, two key steps forward are awaited:

compulsory origin of meat of all species and fish served by collectivities (restaurants, fast-food outlets, canteens, catering), through appropriate Italian legislation fully compatible with EU law,

Cameras in slaughterhouses. England has introduced mandatory CCTV systems in all slaughterhouses by law. Coop Italy is asking its suppliers to do the same. It is time to move forward, perhaps even with a national standard.

Dario Dongo

Notes

(1) EFSA Panel on Animal Health and Welfare (AHAW). Welfare of cattle at slaughter. November 03, 2020.
https://doi.org/10.2903/j.efsa.2020.6275. At https://efsa.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.2903/j.efsa.2020.6275

(2) Eurogroup for Animals (2020). Analysis of new mandates received by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). https://www.eurogroupforanimals.org/sites/eurogroup/files/2020-07/Analysis%20of%20new%20EFSA%20mandates.docx.pdf

(3) EFSA. Animal welfare. https://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/topics/topic/animal-welfare

(4) One appreciates the sincerity of Andrea Gavinelli (Head of Unit G3, DG Sante, European Commission) who, in his presentation ‘Animal welfare within the Farm to Fork strategy‘, in turn casts doubt on the measures that may actually come. See slide 11, Main point of reflection, at https://ec.europa.eu/food/sites/food/files/animals/docs/aw_platform_20200615_pres-02.pdf

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Dario Dongo, lawyer and journalist, PhD in international food law, founder of WIISE (FARE - GIFT - Food Times) and Égalité.