Ways EU law might matter for farmed animals

by Neil_Dullaghan14 min read17th Aug 2020No comments


Policy changeEuropean Union Rethink PrioritiesCorporate cage-free campaignsFarmed Animal Welfare


Many of those who see the value in corporate campaigns that compel public-facing companies to demand higher animal welfare standards from their suppliers believe an effective end goal for these efforts is to enshrine such standards into law (see statements to this effect by Josh Balk, David Coman-Hidy, and Saulius Šimčikas). Farmed animals in the European Union (EU) are covered by the highest farmed animal welfare legal standards in the world [1], and so it likely makes it a good area to understand if one’s end goal is legislation. A sizeable  proportion of resources within Effective Animal Advocacy currently go towards groups and activities attempting to alter animal welfare rules in the EU (and Europe more generally). Much more resources could go to these groups if EU policy and potential paths to impact are better understood. 

As part of Rethink Priorities' research into European Union farmed animal welfare policy, here we sketch out some points we think are important to consider when assessing whether EU law is an important arena to work on for improving the lives of farmed animals. This is an entry in a series by Rethink Priorities that will examine how EU animal welfare laws are made and enforced, the type of laws that are most successful, and the impact of EU standards abroad via trade policies. This work may help inform the funding strategies of those concerned with EU level animal welfare legislation, the lobbying and advocacy activity of groups directly involved in the EU, and policy makers interested in designing EU laws most likely to be complied with.

Following the classic scale, neglectedness, and tractability EA framework, one should consider:

  • Scale - What is the impact of EU laws on animals in EU countries and abroad?
  • Neglectedness - Is the funding, research, and number of organizations working on EU law adequate?
  • Tractability - Does the apparent end of a decade-long hiatus on animal welfare legislation in the EU offer opportunities for new victories?

What is the European Union?

This is a short introductory description of the European Union for the lay reader, especially for those in the effective animal advocacy space that may be more familiar with the US context. Feel free to skip ahead if you feel confident in the basics already, and don’t take any simplifications too seriously. There are many things about the EU one would want to highlight if they were working on democracy promotion, economic growth, climate change or animal welfare. Here we will just outline some generally applicable information. Not all countries in Europe are part of the European Union, but even those outside it, like Norway and the UK, continue to have intertwined relationships with the EU as their nearest trading partner (this animated video also provides a general overview).

The EU is in one sense an economic agreement between 27 European countries (referred to as “member states”) so that they can trade goods, services, and capital without tariffs in a single internal market. Tariff barriers have been erected for competitors outside the EU and subsidies and promotional campaigns are employed to protect domestic revenues and incomes and promote exports from EU countries. Member states have delegated authority to a set of institutions to issue legislation and monitor the internal market so that there is a level playing field for trade. Perhaps think of how the US federal government ensures trade flows between states through federal legislation, regulations, infrastructure spending, and court rulings. The EU has a number of institutions that act like checks and balances and very roughly correspond to US institutions, but often have shared competencies that do not match on to the US system.

  • European Council (made up of the heads of state/government of member states) - set broad goals and offer oversight
  • The Council of the European Union (councils for each ministry of national governments, such as agriculture) [2] - set broad goals and offer oversight
  • European Commission (appointed technocrats and former politicians for each ministry, such as agriculture) - initiate legislation to achieve goals of the council(s).
  • European Parliament (politicians directly elected by the public in each country sit in party blocs) - offer oversight on legislation
  • Court of Justice of the EU - manages disputes and violations of legislation

In general, the European Council (the Chancellor of Germany, President of France, and so on) can suggest priorities for the EU, but the Commission is the only body that can initiate legislation. [3] The proposal then moves back and forth between the councils and European Parliament for approval and amendments and if successful it becomes a directive or regulation that national governments abide by. Directives define goals that have to be incorporated into national law within a certain time period but allow some flexibility for member states to apply rules to achieve these goals, and to set stricter standards if they wish. This means that usually there is some variation in national laws due to differing interpretations. Regulations are binding rules with immediate direct effect in member states and therefore are much stronger instruments but do not allow flexibility to accommodate different legal systems across the 27 member states.  Violations or disputes can be brought to the Court of Justice of the EU, which can issue fines.

There is a huge literature on exactly which institution (Council, Commission, Parliament, Court) has the most power and needless to say the answer varies according to the time period being studied, the exact policy area, and some specific voting procedures. While the Commission has formal agenda setting power since it is the only institution that can initiate legislation, the academic literature on the informal agenda setting power of the European Council leans towards a Council-centric view on the balance of power (Thomson and Hosli 2006). The Council has a rotating presidency which allows the country holding the presidency to set the agenda for their term. The European Parliament can exercise conditional agenda-setting power because the Council’s voting rules make it easier for them to adopt a non-binding resolution proposed by the Parliament than to modify it (Tsebelis and Garrett 1996; Tsebelis 1994). The European Parliament is more likely to influence legislative outcomes when it addresses a topic that is already being discussed (reactive—‘agenda shaping’) and when its goal is to push the EU to integrate in new policy arenas when the status quo is far away (no policy), rather than when it wishes to introduce reforms to existing areas of policy integration (Kreppel and Webb 2019).

What is the landscape of farmed animal welfare in Europe?

How many animals are farmed?

The 27 member states of the EU (plus the recently departed UK) are home to around 1.9 billion (~6%) of the world’s farmed land vertebrates at any one point, based on FAO statistics, though note there is large uncertainty about estimates of global captive vertebrate numbers (Šimčikas, 2020). In the EU farming system there are an estimated 1.5 billion chickens and turkeys, 350 million cows, pigs, goats, and sheep, 3.3 million horses, 13.8 million rabbits and hares, and 1.06 billion farmed finfish (see numbers compiled here). See this 2017 image from Lewis Bollard’s newsletter illustrating the size of farmed animal populations per country: [4]

A map of Europe with EU member states in 2017 resized based on how many land farm animals they have, and shaded based on how many farmed fish they have. Source: personal construction of Lewis Bollard, based on FAO land animal statistics and Fishcount farmed fish projections, compiled here.

How are these animals protected?

The industrial farming system subjects most of these animals to extreme suffering and death. The appeal of EU level legislation is that one can offer protections for a wide swathe of animals in one fell swoop, rather than pushing for laws in each of the 27 member countries. As noted above, farmed animals in the EU are covered by the highest farmed animal welfare legal standards in the world, though it should be recognised that this in part stems from the fact that standards in the rest of the world are very low or absent, and not because EU laws make for exceptionally happy animal lives. The most prominent EU animal welfare directives provide general protection of “all” farm vertebrate animals [5] as well as place partial restrictions on narrow crates for veal calves [6], conventional battery cages for egg-laying hens [7], and individual stalls for sows [8] [9], as well as setting standards on stocking density for broiler chickens [10], while three major regulations concern transport, slaughter and the mandatory labelling of eggs by housing system. [11] There are also regulations on mandatory labelling of cow and bird meats, and bans on certain veterinary products to promote higher welfare standards for farmed animals.  Beyond farmed animals there are laws for companion animals, [12] animals used in research, [13] and wild animals. [14]

Legislation adopted at the EU levelLegislation
General farm protection98/58
Laying hens1999/74
Meat chickens2007/43
Veal calves2008/199
Live transport1/2005
Pig welfare2008/120; 2016/336
Slaughter1099/2009; 2018/723 
Bans on BST and hormones1999/879
Farm subsidies1305/2013, 1307/2013; 1169/2011
Country of origin labelling1169/2011
Poultry meat marketing standards543/2008
Beef labelling566/2008
Egg labelling2052/2003; 834/2007
Organic production90/426, 504/2008
Horse identification1804/1999

There are still many gaps that prevent animals in Europe having a life worth living.  Our report on enforcement of animal welfare laws in the EU has demonstrated widespread systematic noncompliance with these laws. Many animals and practices remain to be covered by legislation. Chickens are the single largest group of land vertebrate kept for human use in EU, and yet their breeding and rearing is not regulated. The EU concentrates the highest levels of fish and other sea animals consumption per capita in the world, but lacks species-specific welfare laws. There is no specific welfare legislation for other commonly farmed animals, like trout, salmon, rabbits, ducks, sheep, goats, pullets, and turkeys. [15] The EU has also signalled it will endorse whole or ground mealworms, lesser mealworms, locusts, crickets and grasshoppers as being safe for human consumption and as feed for aquaculture, opening up opportunities for mass production of a range of insect dishes to be sold across Europe for the first time.

The EU also has the potential to affect the standards of animals around the world due to the "Brussels effect": the process of unilateral regulatory globalisation caused by the EU de facto (but not necessarily de jure) externalising its laws outside its borders through market mechanisms. For example, Norway isn’t part of the EU but often has to abide by EU laws to gain access to the market, which could be influential for Norway's 850 million farmed finfish. How impactful EU animal welfare laws are abroad is an area that is in need of more research however.

Opportunities for improvement in legislation

Much of the existing legislation was developed and passed between 1980 and 2007, with much of the 2000s acting as a transition period for producers. In the past 10 years there has been very little progress on legislation, with the EU instead focusing on initiatives to improve knowledge about existing laws and delegating much impetus to market-driven mechanisms like national and retailer labelling schemes. However, the recently announced EU 10 year plan to make the food chain more sustainable (the Farm-to-Fork Strategy) [16] suggests that EU animal welfare legislation will be revised and its scope will be widened in the future. [17] There is also growing momentum for fish welfare measures  (see here, here, here, and here). [18] The EU Commission is currently evaluating its old 2012-2015 strategy on animal welfare in addition to an overall “fitness check” on animal welfare which will

"assess whether the legislation in question remains fit for purpose and effective to pursue the EU’s animal welfare objectives, considering the evolution of scientific knowledge. It will also assess the animal welfare needs and citizens’ expectations since the adoption of the legislation. The Fitness Check will also seek to identify possible shortcomings in the design, scope or implementation of the existing rules, look at potential for simplification and reduction of regulatory costs and burdens, and at possible gaps and areas for improvement. The results of the Fitness Check will be part of the follow up to the Farm to Fork Strategy and inform the reflection on what further action (legislative and non-legislative) might be necessary to align the EU’s animal welfare objectives to the sustainability goals of the Green Deal and of the Farm to Fork Strategy."

The Commission has also very recently decided to begin research on the basis of a European Citizens’ Initiative  "End the Cage Age" (like a non-binding federal ballot initiative) calling for an end to extreme confined housing systems for farmed vertebrate animals. This is noteworthy since of the 4 European Citizens’ Initiatives (on a variety of topics) that have gathered enough signatures, the Commission has basically done nothing with 3 of them (Karatzia 2017).

There are many opportunities to get basic legislation protecting animals and track compliance with such legislation in the EU because it openly seeks consultation from stakeholders, non-governmental organizations, and a public with higher concern for animal welfare compared to regions in Asia where most farmed animals are (You et al. 2014; Trent et al. 2005;Rahman, Walker, and Ricketts 2005).  After a decade with little progress (Bollard, 2017) this may present animal advocates with many fresh opportunities such as identifying the most effective type of laws to enact in future, revising flawed existing laws, polling EU citizens on animal welfare as a form of advocacy, and pushing for better enforcement of standards. Given the favourable conditions of the EU one might think it is already poised to improve animal welfare in the absence of any further action by the EA community, however it is not at all clear that the best actions will be identified or taken.

The UK has historically been seen as a leader in the EU farmed animal welfare space, both in setting national standards above that of its peers and in pushing for EU level minimum protections. Together with Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands, the UK has formed a voting bloc in the EU that has created pressure for EU animal welfare laws to be adopted and enforced. The exit of the UK from the EU means there is a large hole to be filled among the animal welfare bloc in the Council. It is unclear yet which country, if any, can play the role of the UK as a large market with high levels of public concern for farmed animal welfare. The recent movement towards an effective ban of male chick culling and an end to cages for egg-laying hens by France and Germany could suggest farmed animal welfare is moving up the agenda of the two classic driving forces in European integration. However, public concern for farmed animals in Southern and Eastern Europe is typically lower than elsewhere and so the loss of the UK may shift the voting power away from strengthening animal welfare laws. The rotating presidency of the Council of the EU will return to historically pro-animal welfare countries in the future, so advocates should prepare to make sure their preferred policies make it into the agenda (Sweden January–June 2023, Denmark July–December 2025, the Netherlands July–December 2029).

Who is protecting farmed animals in Europe?

There are many animal protection groups based in Europe that can generate and utilize public concern to push for better animal welfare laws. Animal Equality, Eurogroup for Animals and Compassion in World Farming are three of the most widely known, but there are many actors in this space like Albert Schweitzer Foundation, Vier Pfoten, Wakker Dier, Humane Slaughter Association, Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Association L214 to name a few. Within the EU institutions, members of the European Parliament in the EU Parliament Intergroup on the Welfare and Conservation of Animals and the Working Party for Chief Veterinary Officers in the Council (a working group of the heads of veterinary departments in each member state) also appear to play a large role in generating animal welfare laws. Among these groups, Eurogroup for Animals stands out as being one of the oldest lobbying organisations in the EU. Founded in 1980, it now represents animal protection organisations in 26 of the 27 EU countries and provides the secretariat of the European Parliamentary Intergroup on the Welfare and Conservation of Animals. It seeks to provide advice to EU institutions on animal welfare issues and facilitates dialogue between EU technocrats and animal welfare advocates. Understanding the role of this umbrella group is likely important for understanding how to influence EU policy.

However, many animal groups in Europe focus on companion animals and may not have much interest in farmed animals, especially if it means risking access to their public funding. Around 25% of the total animal welfare funding from Open Philanthropy, the EA Animal Welfare Fund, the Effective Animal Advocacy Fund and the ACE Recommended Charity Fund has gone towards Europe (the estimates come from Charity Entrepreneurship but the actual number is likely different once one accounts for what share of “international” funding went to Europe and funding that is not publicly disclosed, so it does not account for all EAA spending). Animal Charity Evaluators has recommended many of the above mentioned Europe-based groups. However, it is not clear that all of the promising groups have been evaluated for their efficacy, where more support is needed, and what strategies these groups should be pursuing to have the greatest positive impact for farmed animals in Europe.  A few important questions that one would want to address are:

  • How likely is it that more animal groups in Europe could switch to working on farmed animals?
  • How likely is it that farmed animal welfare groups will use evidence based approaches?
  • What conditions make these groups more successful in getting their desired policy into law at the EU level?

There is also a large disparity in the funding of animal welfare science at the EU level which forms the basis of many EU laws: 80% of the average €15 million in annual EU funding for research on animal welfare is spent on experimental animals, of which there are ~12 million, while only 20% goes to farmed animals (including aquaculture), of which there are several billion. Furthermore, the EU offers €100 billion per 6 year periods in the form of a European agricultural fund for rural development of which only €1.5 billion (1.5 %) in the 2014–2020 period was used to incentivise farmers going beyond EU minimum animal welfare standards. It may be possible to find ways to reallocate or increase the funding available for improving farmed animal welfare.

What might make one think EU farmed animal laws are not worth working on?

There are also some considerations worth bearing in mind that might make EU law look less promising as an arena to devote more resources towards.

  • There are many non-legislative outcomes and approaches to impact in Europe that one could reasonably consider. Given the economic foundations of the EU, a greater emphasis on developing alternative protein markets or retailer labelling schemes could undercut demand for intensive animal agriculture more effectively than legislation
  • If one values scale and doesn’t buy the harmonising effect of EU laws globally, then working in Asia where more animals are farmed may always trump work in Europe.
  • If one thinks the European Union is likely to collapse or slide into benign neglect (for example, see Zielonka, 2014), then EU level work seems less promising.
  • If one thinks all the low hanging fruit has already been identified and acted upon.
  • If one is very sceptical that the EU will actually try to make progress in new animal welfare laws in the near future.


This essay was written by Neil Dullaghan. Thanks to the entire Rethink Priorities team for comments and feedback.If you like our work, please consider subscribing to our newsletter. You can see all our work to date here.

Work Cited

Bollard, Lewis. 2017. ‘Why Did the EU Lead the World on Farm Animal Welfare and How Can It Lead Again?’ Open Philanthropy Project Farm Animal Welfare Newsletter
Karatzia, Anastasia. 2017. ‘The European Citizens; Initiative and the EU Institutional Balance: On Realism and the Possibilities of Affecting EU Lawmaking’. Common Market Law Review 54(1).

Kreppel, Amie, and Michael Webb. 2019. ‘European Parliament Resolutions—Effective Agenda Setting or Whistling into the Wind?’ Journal of European Integration 41(3): 383–404.

Rahman, S. A., L. Walker, and W. Ricketts. 2005. ‘Global Perspectives on Animal Welfare: Asia, the Far East, and Oceania’. Revue Scientifique Et Technique (International Office of Epizootics) 24(2): 597–612.

Thomson, Robert, and Madeleine Hosli. 2006. ‘Who Has Power in the EU? The Commission, Council and Parliament in Legislative Decision-Making*’. JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies 44(2): 391–417.

Trent, Neil, Stephanie Edwards, Jennifer Felt, and Kelly O’Meara. 2005. ‘International Animal Law, with a Concentration on Latin America, Asia, and Africa’. State of the Animals 2005

Tsebelis, George. 1994. ‘The Power of the European Parliament as a Conditional Agenda Setter’. The American Political Science Review 88(1): 128–42.

Tsebelis, George, and Geoffrey Garrett. 1996. ‘Agenda Setting Power, Power Indices, and Decision Making in the European Union’. International Review of Law and Economics 16(3): 345–61.

Šimčikas, S. 2020 Estimates of global captive vertebrate numbers.

You, Xiaolin et al. 2014. ‘A Survey of Chinese Citizens’ Perceptions on Farm Animal Welfare’. PLoS ONE 9(10). 

Zielonka, Jan. 2014. Is the EU Doomed? 1 edition. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

1. As shown in studies such as “Overview of animal welfare standards and initiatives in selected EU and third countries” (Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, November 2010) and “Comparative analysis of EU standards in food safety, environment, animal welfare and other non-trade concerns with some selected countries” (European Parliament, May 2012). However, we should also acknowledge that being a “leader” in the animal welfare space is not a high bar since most of the world lacks any protections for farmed animals.↩︎

2. The Council meets in 10 different configurations of 27 national ministers (one per state). The precise membership of these configurations varies according to the topic under consideration; for example, when discussing agricultural policy the Council is formed by the 27 national ministers whose portfolio includes this policy area (with the related European Commissioners contributing but not voting).↩︎

3. The Lisbon Treaty puts the European Council outside the EU legislative system as a planner providing broad objectives but without any direct involvement in the practicalities and intricacies of the legislative process. The European Council provides the impetus and guidelines while the Commission translates these into concrete legislative proposals that are then submitted to the legislators. However, the Treaty actually leaves considerable room for competence overlaps and institutional battles in legislative agenda setting.↩︎

4. This figure is from 2017, before the UK left the EU.↩︎

5. This directive contains general provisions applicable to all vertebrate farmed species but the annex to the directive does not apply to fish, reptiles and amphibians.↩︎

6. Crates banned after first 8 weeks (veal calves typically live 16-20 weeks).↩︎

7. Conventional battery cages are banned, but enriched cages are allowed with min. requirements of 116 sq. inches per caged bird, perches, litter, and a nesting box.↩︎

8. Gestation crates banned except during the first four weeks and last week of sow’s roughly 16-week pregnancy. Farrowing crates used for the two to four weeks the sow weans her piglets. But if they abort/fail to get pregnant, they will stay longer and they stay in farrowing crates from a few days before parturition to the end of the three to four weeks of lactation.↩︎

9. Benefiting an estimated 6M calves, 12M sows, and 370M hens per year across EU member states.↩︎

10. Max stocking density of 33kg/sq. m - 42kg/sq. m, plus litter, lighting, living conditions, transport, and slaughter regulations. Breed and growth rates aren’t regulated.↩︎

11. Regulation (EC) No 589/2008↩︎

12. Regulation (EU) No 576/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 12 June 2013 on the non-commercial movement of pet animals and repealing Regulation (EC) No 998/2003↩︎

13. Directive 2010/63/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 September 2010 on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes Regulation (EC) No 1907/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 18 December 2006 concerning the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH), establishing a European Chemicals Agency↩︎

14. The Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals Council directive 92/43/EEC of 21 May 1992 on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora directive 2009/147/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 November 2009 on the conservation of wild birds Regulation (EU) No 1143/2014 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 October 2014 on the prevention and management of the introduction and spread of invasive alien species↩︎

15. Although the Council has called on the Commission to adopt such legislation.↩︎

16. The Farm to Fork Strategy is a new comprehensive 10-year plan that proposes measures and targets for each stage of the food chain, from production to distribution to consumption, in order to make European food systems more sustainable through investments in research, innovation, advisory services, data, skills, and knowledge sharing. It mostly relates to environmental issues like chemical pesticides, soil fertility, reductions in antimicrobials for farmed animals.↩︎

17. The strategy states “The Commission will revise the animal welfare legislation, including on animal transport and the slaughter of animals, to align it with the latest scientific evidence, broaden its scope, make it easier to enforce and ultimately ensure a higher level of animal welfare. The Strategic Plans and the new EU Strategic Guidelines on Aquaculture will support this process. The Commission will also consider options for animal welfare labelling to better transmit value through the food chain.”(EC, 2020). However, there are also reasons to be less optimistic.  The final text dropped a proposed end to promotional measures for meat in earlier versions and instead says only that the Commission will undertake a review of EU promotional support for agrifood products, The new Common Agricultural Policy will likely continue to fund intensive animal farms, which is disappointing for animal welfare but not new.↩︎

18. The Commission’s report that followed their own study concluded that standards are failing across Europe, but didn’t make any of the proposals necessary for change. In passing up the opportunity to introduce regulations, the Commission maintains that improvements in fish slaughter practices can equally be achieved by voluntary measures, and that any rules would be best made at Member State level ↩︎


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