EU launches urgent review of veal crates

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The campaign against live animal exports registered another victory yesterday when the European Commission announced that it was to review the use of veal crates for rearing calves with a view to banning them.

European Commissioners have agreed to bring forward a review of the use of crates from the expected date of October 1997, but no new date has been set yet.

The review follows the decision by the port authority in Shoreham - scene of violent protests in recent weeks - to end the export of calves to France when contracts run out in about 30 days.

In Brightlingsea last night, more than 2,500 protesters confronting 300 police officers narrowly failed to halt a three-lorry convoy of sheep from getting to the Essex port.

Last night's demonstration, the biggest in five days of clashes between hundreds of protesters and police, resulted in a large number of arrests following scuffles between demonstrators and the Essex police.

Demonstrators thought that they were on the verge of a significant victory when, to their dismay, the police allowed the lorries to pass through a narrow street to the port after the town's nightly 11pm curfew on commercial vehicles.

The controversial veal crate system of raising veal calves was banned in Britain in 1990 on the grounds of cruelty. Since then, some 500,000 British calves a year have been exported to the Continent to be reared in almost total darkness.

The animals are never allowed out to pasture and are chained by the neck and fed a diet of reconstituted milk products for three months before being slaughtered.

The iron-deficient diet they are given is a cost-effective way of producing the tender white flesh preferred by Continental veal eaters.

The RSPCA said that the Commission's decision was "wonderful news" which brought the end of the "cruel" system a step closer.

The Agriculture Minister, William Waldegrave, said: "I am pleased that the Commission has listened to my request and taken account of the widely held views of the British public."

Mr Waldegrave added that he found the shipping of calves abroad to be reared in crates for veal "abhorrent" and "illogical". But he claimed that he was powerless under European Union law to impose a unilateral ban on live exports and called on animal welfare groups to join him in lobbying other European states to outlaw the crates.

The minister has himself been criticised following revelations in the Independent on Sunday that he had sold calves from his own dairy herd to be reared in crates in Europe.

Mr Waldegrave is travelling to Brussels on Monday to lobby fellow agriculture ministers for better animal welfare across Europe.

The European Commission's decision to review the use of crates is unlikely to placate protesters in the short term. Mark Glover, a spokesman for Respect for Animals, said protesters "would not be fobbed off with half measures".

"There's a long way between the Commission saying they're going to review the crates and actual improvements taking place," he added.

The ferry operator ITF, which operates through Shoreham in West Sussex, said yesterday that it would continue the taking live animals through the port until the existing contract with the port authority ran out.

ITF was told on Thursday night that its contract to operate from the port would not be renewed.