The latter half of the last century saw the rapid rise of factory farming systems in the USA and Europe. These were characterised by large numbers of farm animals being caged or crated, and crammed into windowless sheds. Three classic factory farm methods epitomised this approach; veal crates for calves, stall and tether-cages for pregnant pigs, and battery cages for laying hens. These systems remain in widespread use in the USA. All three of these classic systems of the 1960s are subject to far reaching reform in Europe*.
Animal welfare has been undergoing a revolution in Europe. There has been a continent-wide awakening to the fact that animals are sentient beings, capable of feeling pain and suffering. It has seen all 15 countries of the European Union (EU) agree to outlaw veal crates for calves, battery cages for hens, and the prolonged use of sow stalls and tethers for pigs three monumental victories for animal welfare. During this period, the EU has also agreed a legally binding protocol that recognises animals as sentient beings rather than just agricultural products.
Giant steps have been taken in the campaign for farm animal protection. These gains are indeed heartening. However, despite the progress, factory farming in the 1980s and 90s has continued to expand in more insidious forms. Whilst legislation, fuelled by popular outrage, is forcing the abandonment of cages and crates, factory farming has concentrated on intensifying its breeding and feeding regimes making animals grow faster or produce more milk, etc. with equally devastating consequences for the animals concerned. Broiler chickens that are crippled or suffer heart attacks before the age of 6 weeks, dairy cows with a metabolic system that can scarcely keep pace with their over-producing udders are just two examples. The new breed of factory farm has intensified the physiological strain put on the animals, whilst at the same time seeing animals kept in ever-larger group sizes and at high stocking densities. Fish the last main target for mans residual hunter-gatherer instinct are now also being factory farmed. Fish farming represents the worlds fastest growing livestock sector. Its level of intensification often matches anything found on terra firma.
That said, European animal welfarists have achieved remarkable reforms. The fact that animal welfare is now seen as an important public and political issue gives real cause for optimism. The campaign in Europe has reached critical mass, something that has so far eluded the farm animal welfare reform movement in the United States of America. Yet the ripples from Europes humane revolution are being felt far and wide. The factory farm industry internationally is voicing fears of a domino affect around the world. Attentions are increasingly focusing on America to respond positively to the compassionate lead taken in Europe.
What follows is a summary of the key farm animal welfare reforms in the European Union, together with background information on the issues, and examples of the legislation enacted.
*Europe in this context means the European Union (EU) comprising 15 member states in 2001.
NB: The UK Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food (MAFF) is now known as the new Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA).