Veal row divides Europe as anger grows

Drive for reform is beset by splits and delays, writes Sarah Helm
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The Independent Online
Gerrit van Heijst knows a happy calf when he sees one. And, as Brussels representative of the European Feed Manufacturers' Federation, which promotes the calf fattening industry, he has seen a lot of calves penned in tiny crates eating only milk f eed.

Contrary to what the British animal welfare ``demagogues'' say, these animals are quite content, insists Mr van Heijst, a softly spoken Dutchman.

"You in Britain are quite ready to hit a child but not a dog - why is that?" he asks.

"Your animal welfare is not based on objective criteria. You can see if an animal is well or not by the expression in its eyes. These calves are fed and watered regularly. How many other animals are looked after in this way?" said Mr van Heijst, as wind rattled around his bleak Brussels office block.

Across the road women in neat cardigans, members of the Eurogroup animal welfare lobby, are preparing to promote a new horror video on animal suffering and it is men like Mr van Heijst and the `fatteners' he represents, who are cast as Dracula.

As the veal calf protest has shown, the British animal welfare bandwagon is starting to roll across Europe, hoping to transform agricultural practice. Today it is veal crates, tomorrow it will be battery hens, pregnant sows, slaughterhouses and much else.

The veal calf issue will give a firm indication of whether Europe is to follow Britain's lead. William Waldegrave, the Minister of Agriculture, has suggested that a ban on veal crates in the European Union is imminent. However, in Brussels his optimism appears premature.

While northern Europeans back Britain - and many have already outlawed the practice - southern Europeans look almost certain to oppose a ban.

Intensive farming began in northern European countries where the lobbies today are also strong. In France and southern Europe, however, animal welfare is barely an issue.

Here, where larger proportions of the population are directly involved in farming, economic arguments still come first.

According to feed manufacturers, there are six million veal calves being fattened in Europe, of which 80 per cent are in France. They supply farmers with a complete ``fattening'' package, including milk feed ``housing systems'' and automatic light and air inlets.

The ``fatteners'' know the EU could not countenance an outright ban on veal crates due to the sudden traumatic shock it would cause European agriculture. The price of calves would plummet. Beef production would go into surplus as calves would be raised for beef. At the moment 5.7 per cent of Europe's milk production feeds the veal calves and a halt would create a new milk lake.

The fatteners are also demanding new scientific proof of suffering in an attempt to counter the surge of public sentiment swelling up from Britain. It is in the interest of the farmer to have a healthy beast and a healthy beast must be happy, they say. However, the welfare lobby says such talk is designed to stall a European-wide outcry. There is ample scientific proof of the misery of the calves and on this the welfare groups are backed by the European Commission, which itself proposed a ban in 1991 onthe evidence of scientists.

At last week's Brussels meeting EU agriculture ministers requested new scientific proof of calf suffering before endorsing Mr Waldegrave's call for a ban. This was almost certainly another delaying tactic. Experts in Brussels believe that the best Mr Waldegrave can hope to achieve is a couple more centimetres on the size of a crate. "A little more room to flap the ears," said one official.