europe

EU revealed to be world's biggest live animal exporter


New analysis suggests the EU could be responsible for up to 80% of the global trade in live farm animals, which continues to be linked to animal welfare failings.

Global data provided to the Guardian by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) indicates that 1.8 billion live chickens, pigs, sheep, goats and cattle were moved across a border in 2019. The EU was estimated to be responsible for more than three-quarters of that total.

“A large part of the cross-border movement of live animals takes place in the EU,” said the FAO’s livestock development officer, Anne Mottet.

The global trade in live farm animals – worth more than $20bn (£14bn) a year – has more than quadrupled in size over the past 50 years. However, inadequate regulation means that animals might be put at risk on some journeys, or exposed to cruelty when they reach their destination.

The government is proposing to ban the export of live animals from England and Wales, unless it is for breeding or longer-term use – not just for fattening and slaughter.

Concerns about animal welfare during transport led the EU to establish a committee of inquiry last year to investigate alleged failings.

Transport risks for live animals include stress during loading and unloading, injury, hunger, thirst and exhaustion, according to a report published today by animal advocacy organisation Eurogroup for Animals, which also highlighted the potential for lower slaughter standards on arrival and the higher risk of infectious disease spread during stressful transportation.

The Eurogroup for Animals is calling for regulatory reform including shorter journey times, rather than a ban. It said it wants to, “shift from live transport to a trade in meat and carcasses as well as genetic material.”

The FAO argues that it does not make sense to aggregate all transported animals in the same way. “Some are very small and other large. One cannot add chicken and cows. For example, 95% of the 1.8 billion animals that crossed a boarder in 2019 are chicken, while cattle represented less than 1% of this total,” said Mottet.

A farmer guides pigs to a cargo zone cage them to be loaded onto a cargo plane en route to China from the airport in Guipavas, Brittany, on 10 March 2020.
A farmer guides pigs to a cargo zone cage them to be loaded onto a cargo plane en route to China from the airport in Guipavas, Brittany, on 10 March 2020. Photograph: Fred Tanneau/AFP via Getty Images

One of the factors driving the EU’s live transport of animals, said Ditte Erichsen, a veterinarian with Animal Protection Denmark, is that countries tend to specialise in producing a particular food animal, often for export.

“Denmark has become the world’s largest exporter of pigs,” said Erichsen. Most of them, she said, are piglets of about three months in age and their journey times are often over eight hours. According to the Eurogroup report, which uses Eurostat data, about 15.7 million Danish pigs left the country in 2019.

“This is the result of a tendency which we have seen over the last decade, where the pig production has specialised to a degree, where the piglets are born in one country, fattened in another and maybe slaughtered in a third country,” Erichsen said.

Particular risks for pigs, she said, are heat stress because pigs cannot sweat, suffocation due to overcrowding, prolonged hunger and thirst and no space to rest.

Iris Baumgaertner, of Swiss-German NGO AWF-TSB, said in Germany the specialty is hatched chicks. The report found that the country exported 312 million head of poultry within the EU in 2019, of which almost 100 million weighed under 185 grams.

“The number of animals being transported around the EU, and the millions of chickens leaving Germany, is the insane result of globalisation and specialisation,” Baumgaertner said.

EU subsidies are another factor driving animal transport, said Gabriel Paun, a Romanian animal advocate and EU director for NGO, Animals International. “In the Middle East and north Africa, they prefer [their] local sheep meat but the Romanian meat is very cheap, partly because of the EU subsidies,” Paun said.

Paun said 2020 data is expected to show that an estimated 3 million Romanian sheep were exported to Saudi Arabia. Transport itself is cheap, with a shipment to Saudi Arabia costing about $25 (£18) per head, or less on larger ships, Paun said.

Romania has recently been accused of “complete silence” over its investigation into the sinking of the Queen Hind in November 2019, which resulted in the deaths of more than 14,000 sheep.

The livestock vessel Queen Hind, which overturned carrying 14,600 sheep in November 2019.
The livestock vessel Queen Hind, which overturned carrying 14,600 sheep in November 2019. Photograph: Animals International

Although data on the live transport of fish is limited – and counts fish in weight rather numbers of animals – the Eurogroup report estimates that nearly 54,000 tons of live fish were transported around the EU in 2019. Of those, 75% are trout, carp, eel and bluefin tuna.

Live fish are equally prone to transport stress. “[Fish] are starved for at least a day prior to transport, but sometimes up to two weeks, which can cause aggression between fish as they look for food,” said Christine Xu of the Aquatic Life Institute. Other transport risks include poor water quality and overcrowding.

A European Commission spokesperson said in an email it was cooperating with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) “to improve the welfare conditions of the animals transported outside the EU” and that it would “continue to monitor exports of live animals and take all the necessary measures within the remit of its competence in order to improve the implementation of the EU legislation.”

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