Europeans care deeply about animal welfare. In 2020, 1.4 million EU citizens signed a petition to no longer allow farm animals to be kept in cages, a campaign that Slow Food actively promotes together with other civil society groups. The call for better animal welfare legislation was supported by the European Parliament and became a “flagship” element of the Farm to Fork strategy. In 2023, the EU Commission set out four new laws to promote animal welfare. But all of a sudden, all but one were dropped from the agenda for 2024.
What happened? Investigative journalists from the Lighthouse Report based in the Netherlands and the British newspaper The Guardian were intrigued and started digging. Through freedom of information (FOI) requests and by talking to multiple sources within the EU, they were able to bring to light what lobbyists for industry groups are able to achieve.
The Guardian quotes Anja Hazekamp, the vice-chair of the European parliament’s environment committee: “Industry fought really hard and dirty on this file. They tried everything they could think of because they know we desperately need animal welfare legislation to make our food system more sustainable and humane, and this was their last chance. They don’t want to change, but see that change is inevitable, and so they’re getting desperate. They will do anything to save their skins.” According to The Guardian, “Lobbyists argued to EU officials that the ban would effectively destroy the EU’s farming sector, according to minutes of the meeting released under freedom of information laws: ‘If the [animal welfare] bar will be raised very high, production will disappear from Europe’.”
In theory, lobbyists and advocacy groups simply represent a particular viewpoint to lawmakers and are part of a functioning democratic system. The Lighthouse Report3 suggests that in regards to animal rights legislation lobbyists made it known that passing it would have consequences: “One EU official said ‘this was the first time’ they have experienced such pressure from the farming industry. (…) Lobbyists ‘targeted senior levels in the commission’ at strategic moments in the legislative process ‘using privileged channels’, the insider said. After this, high-level attitudes towards the legislation became ‘extremely negative’, the official added.”
Lobbyists should be transparent about whom they represent, the EU Transparency Register lists lobbyists and advocacy groups. According to the FOI requests filed by the Lighthouse Report team, much of the pressure on EU officials came from a new group, the European Livestock Voice (ELV). “ELV is not listed in the EU’s transparency registry and the group declined to answer questions about its funding, how it was set up, or its lobbying on the animal welfare package”, says The Guardian.
Can the cage ban legislation for farm animals be resurrected in the future? The Guardian writes: “A commission spokesperson, who asked not to be named, said the commission was ‘reflecting on and carefully assessing important aspects, including the related costs and the appropriate length of the transition period’ for its animal welfare legislation. ‘It is important to have the support of all involved to make these proposals a success,’ the official added”.
A very recent example from the US shows that conventional agriculture lobbyists don’t give up even after an animal welfare law has been passed. Many states have provisions that allow for citizens to initiate changes to existing laws or new legislation. In 2018, Californians voted for “Proposition 12”, the “Prevention of Cruelty to Farm Animals Act”. Proposition 12 increases the space requirement for farm animals slightly, and sows can no longer be kept in gestation crates. These metal confinements only allow the sow to take a few steps forward or backward, but are too narrow for the animal to turn around or lie on its side.
The law also stipulates that all uncooked pork cuts sold in California must come from animals in facilities that comply with the new space requirements. And that’s what got Proposition 12 national attention as well as the ire of the agriculture lobby: Californians eat about 13% of all pork produced in the US, but only 1% of it is produced in California, by far the biggest quantities come from the big pork producing states such as Iowa or North Carolina.
Proposition 12 effectively means that any US producer wanting to sell pork in California has to comply with this law. Only about 4% of the US pork industry met the California standard, and according to a University of Minnesota study, it would cost between $1.9 to more than $3.2 billion (or $3,500 per sow) to comply with the new law. The National Pork Council and the Farm Bureau Federation sued, but in May of this year, the United States Supreme Court ruled against the appeal by industry groups. The California law stands.
Even so, agriculture lobbyists still don’t take no for an answer. Instead they are hard at work to get the US Congress to make it illegal for individual states to pass legislation or introduce standards that would impact items produced in other US states. And they are making headway: in June, 11 state governors sent a letter to Congress. Referring to Proposition 12 as a “strict, activist-drafted requirement for pig farming” it said: “A single state, or handful of states, should not have the power to radically disrupt that system. (…) Given the profound consequences of California’s experiment (…) this is a situation where federal legislation is appropriate and necessary.”
By Marianne Landzettel
Marianne is an agriculture journalist and author, writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK and the rest of the EU, the US and South Asia. She was UK and Ireland correspondent for German Public Radio and worked for the BBC World Service for 10 years.