Leading Article: Europe responds to our animal passions

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The Independent Online
DOORSTEP canvassers during the European elections earlier this month found that no subject aroused more passion than the conditions under which animals are transported live across the Continent for slaughter. It is, therefore, all the more surprising that Gillian Shephard, the Agriculture Minister, should have gone to Luxemburg preparing to side with those who were resisting the imposition of tighter rules.

Live animals are more expensive to transport than carcasses, but also more profitable because European consumers prefer to buy locally slaughtered meat. Animal welfare lobbyists have long argued for an eight-hour limit on the total length of such journeys. They have won support from Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark, countries that have a strong vested interest in protecting their meat farmers from British and other competition.

The Government is right to resist such an absolute limit, which would strike a worrying blow to farms in Scotland, northern England and Wales. But the welfare of animals destined for slaughter can still be adequately safeguarded if strict rules on their transport are put in place. Animals should be treated humanely when loaded and unloaded, packed with sufficient room to move and breathe, and released from their trucks at adequate intervals for food, water, rest and exercise.

The compromise proposed by the European Commission, intended as a half-way house between the concerns of northern Europeans and the indifference of southerners to animal welfare, was a gap of 15 hours between water stops and 22 hours betweeen food stops.

Wisely, Gillian Shephard decided at the last minute to block this compromise last night by the simple device of siding with the Germans, Dutch and Danes. Legally, the matter is now in abeyance - but Britain will be in a good position to point the EU towards a sensible interval for feeding and watering, perhaps every eight hours.

The incident illustrates neatly the power of organisations such as the RSPCA. If it marks a shift in the EU towards the concerns of citizens and away from the financial interests of big business, it could set a highly encouraging precedent that would make both the Union and its member governments more popular.