The increased demand for meat drives transport of almost 2 billion farm animals annually despite concerns about inhumane slaughter and poor transport conditions.
In the last 50 years, the global trade in live farm animals has quadrupled in size, but inconsistent regulations could put animals at risk while being transported to some destination, as well as exposed to cruelty once they arrive.
Every day, 5 million farm animals are loaded on to ships or trucks and transported to new countries. The journey can take days or even weeks. This number of farm animals in transit every year reaches up to 2 billion.
With the growth of trade, the profits have increased as well. According to Comtrade data, the live export global trade worth was $716 million in 1988, and in 2017 the number had risen to $21 billion. Even though the numbers don’t take inflation into consideration, the increase has definitely outrun inflation over that period.
The increased demand for meat in many countries in the world has been a blessing to exports specializing in animals that need to be fattened before slaughter or in breeding. The import of live animals in the Middle East has drastically risen. Only in Saudi Arabia, almost $1 billion worth of live animals were imported in 2016. China supplying Hong Kong with animals has increased fears of even bigger dependence on the mainland.
On the other hand, many countries in the world rely on exporting live farm animals overseas. For instance, Romania sells over 2 million sheep annually. One of the most important sectors is Sudan’s trade with Saudi Arabia, exporting several million sheep per year. Other countries with thriving export industries are Spain, Denmark, and Australia.
However, the increased trade means a lack of oversight of live animals on the journey to their new destination, as well as on arrival. Animal charities demand better regulations of the live export industry due to concerns such as improper conditions during the transport and inhumane slaughter when they arrive. They also concern about the spread of diseases.
Campaigners and officials’ investigations have emphasized problems at borders and ports where animals stay in hot vehicles until they are loaded on ships. Here, vets can’t always access the animal in need.
Bad animal practices or abuse, including stabbing the cow into the side of the neck to kill it, or cutting the tendons in its legs to prevent it from moving before slaughter, have been revealed in many slaughterhouses in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Egypt. Nowadays, NGO Eyes on Animals works in Turkish slaughterhouses to improve conditions.
What’s more, the Guardian discovered that many ships used to transport animals are old and dilapidated. When one ship capsized off the coast of Romania, around 14,600 sheep drowned, but the crew was saved.
Additional problems have arisen due to the consolidation of the slaughterhouse industry. France, UK, and the US have recorded larger but fewer meat plants. This means that the journey of animals in transit is longer as they often travel in other countries for processing.
Even though it’s OIE’s job (The World Organization for Animal Health) to set standards on animal and public health, and to participate in setting rules for animal welfare, it’s not responsible for punishing those who transgress or for ensuring the rules are adhered to. Individual governments have the final word.
The deputy director-general of OIE, Dr. Matthew Stone, stated that the organization worked with its partners and members to establish international strategies and standards for animal welfare, as well as develop the capacity of veterinary services to use those standards.
Here’s what he said:
Our members have not given us the mandate to enforce compliance with our international standards – that remains the sovereign responsibility of each member country.
Our standards and strategies for animal welfare promote implementation of bilateral agreements for trade in live animals that address contingency arrangements during transport, such as mechanical failure or adverse weather events, and importantly in the context of international trade, contingencies for disease outbreaks or health events.
In such circumstances, our standards describe the responsibility to care for the sick animals, and if unloading at the port of destination is in their best interests, to facilitate quarantine, investigation, and decisions on the fate of the consignment. Humane treatment of animals remains an important consideration throughout the entire journey.
The Australian and New Zealand governments took action after a few incidents to restrict exporting live animals from their countries and improve the monitoring of animals being transported to a new destination. Still, other governments apply different rules, and the supervision of the existing regulations is inconsistent.
Although the EU has a set of regulations when it comes to live export within boundaries, and it should cover them beyond, in practice, ensuring that standards will be met beyond the border is difficult.
According to the chief policy adviser at Compassion in World Farming, Peter Stevenson:
We’ve told the EU they should not be sending animals to places where this is happening.
There are international laws on animal welfare at slaughter set by the World Organisation for Animal Health, and we should not be sending animals to places where we know they are being broken.
Some of this is just habit. If the will was there for the EU to say – probably working with Australia – that there could be no more live exports, then it could be done.
Stevenson reported that the worst slaughterhouses he has ever seen are found in the Middle East.
The new Conservative government manifesto in the UK dedicated to ending too long journeys for fattening and slaughter.
According to Stevenson:
The OIE should be doing much more to help its member countries to implement its standards on welfare during transport and slaughter. Many OIE member countries simply don’t know where to begin when it comes to implementing the OIE standards on welfare at slaughter.
I don’t think a global body would really help with enforcement. We simply need the European Commission and other countries to enforce regulations rigorously.
The director of Eurogroup for Animals, Reineke Hameleers said:
The EU needs to enforce the transport regulation until the destination in the third country. However, in practice this is very hard because the EU relies on working with many different third countries where no enforcement infrastructure is in place. Also, once the animals have arrived there is no way to ensure their welfare during transport and slaughter.
The existing legislation is not up to date, unenforceable and out of step with societal demands. There’s barely any legislation on transport by sea, and once the animals are outside the EU, there is no way of even monitoring standards, let alone enforcing them – and this goes for slaughter as well as transport.
The lobbying group asks for a complete prohibition of live exports and limits on the duration of journeys within countries.
However, Rupert Claxton of the meat sector in the International consultancy and market research firm Gira said that great care was taken when animals were transported in almost all cases.
Here’s what he said for the Guardian:
In the most basic terms, it doesn’t make sense not to take care of them. Commercially, exporters need the animals to be fit and well.
Even though the industry has always tried to come up with ways to reduce or improve transit, Claxton says that the growing distance between slaughterhouses in Europe made some journey inevitable.
The chair of the Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law Veterinary Association based in the UK vet Paul Roger said:
Mostly exporters are good. But the emphasis is on profitable trade rather than welfare aims. An example might be the live export of sheep to the Middle East, and of recorded journey times being exceeded in the EU. I think we need to reassess what we permit and why we permit this trade.
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