Europe plan for ban on veal crates

KThe European Commission will tomorrow propose a Europe-wide ban on the raising of veal calves in crates.

But, in a substantial concession to veal-producing countries, farmers already in the veal business will be allowed to use crates for up to 12 years. Campaigners are expected to reject this transition period as far too long.

None the less, the Brussels move represents a considerable victory for public protests - particularly in Britain - against a farming method viewed by animal welfare campaigners as barbaric. The proposal also represents a victory for the former Secretary of State for Agriculture, William Waldegrave, who lobbied for action at European level.

Scientists and veterinary experts, asked to study the evidence, have recommended the Europe-wide ban, which Britain now hopes will help end protests against live animal exports to the continent. Veal crates have been outlawed in the UK since 1990.

According to the proposal, which will be put to EU agriculture ministers next week, it will be illegal from 1998 for farmers to start using crates for the first time. To allow producers time to adapt to other rearing methods, existing holdings can continue to use individual pens until the end of 2007.

The proposed ban faces bitter opposition from the French, who are the biggest veal producers in the EU. Of the 6 million calves raised in crates in Europe, 80 per cent are in France. There are no plans to provide cash compensation to farmers, according to a draft of the Commission proposal, seen by the Independent.

The French have the support of Italy but will not have enough votes in the Council of Ministers to block the measure, which can be decided by majority vote. Commission officials are confident of majority approval.

The producers say that cramped timber crates to restrict the calves' movement, and a diet of milk-feed, are required if veal eaters are to get the tender white meat they expect. Meat turns redder and tougher if the animals are allowed to exercise. Scientists, however, have concluded that it is abnormal and cruel to deprive calves of "social interaction", of space for normal movements and some roughage in their diet.

EU officials dismissed industry warnings that the market for veal will collapse or that the price of beef, already hit by the "mad cow disease" scare, will plummet if the ban is approved. "The market for veal will still be there. The French and Italians may just have to get used to rosy veal for a change" said one Brussels official.

Crates, which, like battery hen cages, are a typical feature of intensive farming, are of necessity tiny to restrict movement, prevent muscle development and stop calves grazing on anything other than the milk they are fed.

According to one expert, the system induces a type of anaemia in the animals. But supporters including representatives of the feed industry claim the calves are humanely treated, are fed and watered carefully and are not in pain or misery.

Thousands of people took part in peaceful protests this year - in sharp contrast to animal rights extremists who blockaded ferry ports and fought with police - to try to persuadeMr Waldegrave to take action.

Demonstrators marched slowly in front of lorry loads of sheep, ministers were sent parcel bombs through the post and internecine rivalry broke out between rival groups of animal rights campaigners.

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