EU revealed as hub for ‘cruel’ live animal transport amid fears of disease

<span>Photograph: Clinton Austin/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Clinton Austin/Alamy

Previously unpublished records have revealed evidence about the EU’s role in the controversial trade in live farm animals, with millions of livestock being transported across Europe and internationally on long distance journeys condemned by campaigners.

The documents, which are copies of official planning records known as animal journey logs, reveal for the first time granular details of the journeys of more than 180,000 consignments of EU cattle, pigs, sheep and other species over a 19-month period between 2021 and 2023.

Millions of livestock were trucked, shipped and flown on lengthy journeys lasting eight hours or more, the records show, with many spanning days or even weeks. The animals were traded between European countries or exported globally for breeding, fattening and slaughter purposes.

Campaigners say such lengthy transport times are cruel and unnecessary, citing overcrowding, exhaustion, dehydration and stress as key factors affecting livestock health and welfare. Concerns over disease spread have also been raised.

The findings, which are published today as part of a wider report compiled by the pressure groups Compassion in World Farming and Eurogroup For Animals, come as EU officials prepare to announce proposals early next month for amending regulations relating to the live transport of farm animals.

The report calls for an embargo on EU farm animals being exported outside the bloc, strict limits on journey times between EU nations, and the outlawing of the live transport of unweaned livestock.

Peter Stevenson, chief policy adviser at Compassion in World Farming and the report’s lead author, said: “Although we knew that millions of animals were enduring cruel and unnecessary journeys in the name of profit this report shows that the situation is far worse than we had feared. The EU must address this as a matter of urgency.”

Reineke Hameleers, CEO of Eurogroup for Animals, called for a transition towards a trade in meat and carcasses, rather than live animals, saying the “transnational nature of live exports makes it challenging to protect the welfare of animals”.

Anja Hazekamp, a Dutch MEP, said she was shocked at the findings. “It is unsustainable to keep as many animals as we do in the European Union. We cause a lot of problems for animal welfare, climate, biodiversity and for human health.

“We need to eliminate long distance transport, rather than transporting animals all over Europe and to the other side of the world. It is ridiculous that animals are sent as far as Brazil and Colombia.”

The European Commission said it had been working to improve animal welfare for over 40 years, “progressively improving the lives of animals and adopting welfare standards in legislation that are amongst the highest in the world”.

It added: “Animal welfare is and will remain a priority for the commission. An example of that is the adoption in early 2023 of new rules on the transport of animals by sea. The Farm to Fork strategy foresees a revision of the EU’s animal welfare legislation. This preparatory work is ongoing, covering legislation for the welfare of animals at farm level, during transport, at the time of killing and to establish a voluntary European label for animal welfare.”

They said the proposal on the protection of animals during transport, one of the four legs of the legislation, was the most advanced and would be presented in December 2023.

Researchers used animal journey logs, trade figures, freedom of information requests, satellite mapping and maritime data to compile a comprehensive overview of livestock journeys. They found that 44 million farm animals annually were transported between EU member states and exported internationally, many of them on long distance journeys lasting eight hours or more.

That represents a small but significant fraction of the 1.6 billion live animals, many of them chickens, that are believed to be moved within the EU and internationally each year. Some estimates have suggested that as many as 5 million farm animals are in transit on any given day worldwide.

The trade is flourishing owing to the rising demand for meat in some parts of the world: European companies are cashing in on the need to stock farms in countries such as Libya and Vietnam with breeding and fattening animals. For some countries – including Spain, Denmark, Ireland and Romania – livestock export is a key part of the farming economy.

The closure of abattoirs and increased consolidation within the meat processing sector has also resulted in longer transports within Europe.

The Middle East and north Africa are key markets for sheep, while some animals are transported as far as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan by road, a journey that can take several weeks.

Recommendations published last year by the European Food Safety Authority (EFfSA), identified multiple welfare concerns in the transportation of live animals including “group stress, handling stress, heat stress, injuries, motion stress, prolonged hunger, prolonged thirst, respiratory disorders, restriction of movement, resting problems and sensory overstimulation”.

Records show that some live animals – mainly pigs – have been transported from the EU by air to countries as far afield as Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam and Cambodia. Other pigs were flown from France to destinations in Africa, including Cameroon, Ghana and Uganda.

Many of the journeys cited in the report involve unweaned, infant calves and lambs. Over 300,000 unweaned calves were estimated to have been transported between EU member states each year between 2019 and 2021.

“Most of these calves are the unwanted male calves from the dairy sector. These tiny animals, often just two to three weeks of age, are frail and quite unsuited for transport,” the authors said.

EU regulations allow unweaned calves to be transported on journeys of more than eight hours once they are 14 days old. However, EFSA has recommended that this age be increased to five weeks, with journey times capped at eight hours.

One of the “tricks of the trade” allegedly used, researchers found, was transport organisers recording assembly sites – where animals from various farms are gathered before the next leg of their journey – as the original points of departure. This allows the journey time to appear shorter than it really is.

A European Commission review last year acknowledged that “the enforcement of current rules is insufficient to ensure the level of animal welfare expected”.

Matthias Beermann from the EU’s budgeting body, the European Court of Auditors, which recently reviewed the EU’s farm animal transport industry, said: “Member states enforce EU animal transport rules unevenly. Transporters may choose a longer route to avoid passing through countries with tighter enforcement of EU rules and tougher sanctions.”

The EU is understood to be the world’s largest live farm animal exporter. Economic factors are considered to be the biggest driving force in live animal transport in the EU, according to Beermann.

“Farms tend to specialise in one species or stage in production. There is a trend towards fewer, but larger farms and slaughterhouses. Against this backdrop, farmers and meat producers aim to minimise production and slaughter costs, maximise revenues and optimise economies of scale by exploiting cost differences between member states. These factors incentivise the transport of animals, particularly when transport costs account for a small fraction of the retail meat price,” he said.

Countries including the UK, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand have committed to tighter regulation on live animal exports.