Whitehall urged to seek end to `cruel' veal trade

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ANIMAL welfare campaigners urged the Government to seek a change in EU law last night after losing a legal battle to put a permanent end to shipments of veal calves from Britain.

The European Court found that the British Government would be acting illegally if it imposed a unilateral ban on veal calf exports. The 15 judges rejected a challenge by Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) to the Government's claim that even if it wanted to end live-calf exports, its hands were tied by the rules of the single market.

The defeat was "devastating", Joyce D'Silva of CIWF said. "This shows that free trade is God in the European Union ...Free trade is fine for cabbages and TV sets but it has to be a different matter when animals are suffering".

The outcome will have no practical effect for now because British traders have in any case been banned from shipping cattle abroad under the "mad cow disease" ban imposed on Britain in March 1996. Before the BSE ban more than half a million veal calves were exported each year from Britain to be reared in crates in Holland, Belgium, France and Italy. Public outrage about the cruelty involved led to protests and blockades on British ports in 1995.

But Ms D'Silva said calves would be one of the first categories certified for export as the EU's BSE ban is phased out. The first lifting of the embargo for meat from Northern Irish herds was agreed earlier this week.

She said the onus was on the Government to put the case for a change in the law on the EU agenda immediately. "Labour have said they want a meat trade not a livestock trade in Europe. They are armed with a new declaration in the Amsterdam treaty which recognises that animals are sentient beings, and they have the EU presidency until July. They could not be in a stronger position".

Labour pledged before coming to power that it would ban the veal-calf export trade if the European Court established that it could be done legally within the confines of the single market. Lawyers for CIWF had argued in the High Court of England and Wales that Britain could invoke a clause in the EU treaty which allows governments to block trade for reasons of public morality, public policy or the health and life of animals. They argued that because a significant section of public opinion in Britain believed EU rules on veal-calf raising are too weak, Britain should be allowed an exemption.

But the judges, overturning a preliminary opinion by the Court's own Advocate General, said Britain could not impede the calf trade because common EU rules on the minimum standards for the raising of calves in crates already exist.

Pressure from Britain led to inclusion last June of a new EU treaty protocol which obliges Brussels to "pay full regard to the welfare requirements" of animals when implementing market policies. The treaty has not yet been ratified but Ms D'Silva said the ruling flew in the face of the spirit of the protocol. The Court failed to give animal welfare or the concerns of the British public "the time of day" she said.