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Animal welfare issue at centre of German elections


By Simone Baroke, contributing analyst , 10-Sep-2013

The ugly matter of animal suffering has become a hot issue in Germany's electoral campaign.

Germany's federal election campaign is on its final stretch

Attention is being drawn to the paradox that although the country does seem to have adequate legislation to protect animals, and which should prevent livestock being exploited way beyond the pain threshold, these laws are not enforced. Maybe the 2013 elections will spell a turning point in this lamentable state of affairs?

Greens at loggerheads with the German Farmers' Association

Germany's federal election campaign is on its final stretch, with only days to go until voting day on 22 September. It is certainly nothing new that, in the run-up to major elections, some thorny issues get dragged into the limelight by parties desperately vying for votes.

Animal welfare shapes up as the ideal candidate - a highly emotive topic sure to trigger consumer outrage and flip voting decisions in an instant. Germany's Green Party, which wields considerable power in German politics, due to its habitual function as coalition partner of Germany's second-largest party, the Social Democrats (SPD), seems to be pursuing precisely this strategy. In fact, the two parties, up against the ruling Merkel-led CDU party, have banded together on this issue.

In a radio interview in June, for example, a member of the SPD drew attention to the fact that turkeys reared under intensive conditions in Germany routinely had their beaks mutilated - a painful procedure that leaves them unable to engage in some of their most basic instinctive behaviour, such as cleaning their plumage. Jointly with the Green Party, the SPD put forward a proposal in July to regulate the rearing of turkeys, for which no legal minimum animal welfare standards exist in Germany to date.

However, the event that really seems to have upset the apple cart was the publication of a Green Party-commissioned report in mid-July, researched by Hochschule Eberswalde (Berlin), with the unambiguous title 'Qualzucht bei Nutztieren' (Torturous Practices in Animal Husbandry).

The report acknowledges that agriculture has been under immense and ever-increasing pressure over the past decades to reduce production costs. As a consequence, livestock productivity has been continually pushed upwards, at the expense of animals' wellbeing. The report is replete with examples, including the fact that the useful life of a dairy cow had been halved over the past 40 years, and that breeding sows barely managed to reach the age of three.

Predictably, the German Farmers' Association (Deutscher Bauernverband or DBV) claimed to be affronted by the publication. It hit back, accusing the Green Party of deliberately sowing distrust in the run-up to the elections. Furthermore, the DBV's secretary general, Dr Helmut Born, criticised the details of the study, saying it was neither based on original nor the most recent data, but instead relied on outdated research, and that the facts had been reported in a highly selective fashion. Dr Born quoted numerous statistics in the livestock industry's defence, including a declining mortality rate for calves and chicks.

A land of price-conscious meat-lovers

Germany is the biggest fresh meat consumer in the EU, at just over 4m tonnes (mt) in 2012, ahead of France on 3.3mt, according to Euromonitor International. The country is also the EU's largest consumer of chilled processed meats (total volumes), and ranks second in terms of per capita consumption, at 15.9kg per head in 2013.

Furthermore, Germany was the country with the highest total grocery spend accrued by discounters in 2012 in the EU, and second in per capita terms, following Denmark. Clearly, German consumers are as notoriously price-conscious as they are fond of their animal products, and it is easy to see how this would lead to a strong conflict of interests and priorities for producers and consumers alike.

Existing laws not enforced

The aforementioned 'Qualzucht' report offers numerous suggestions for making breeding programmes and animal husbandry more animal welfare-friendly - for example by opting for breeds of chickens where both sexes are suitable for commercial production purposes (the females for eggs, the males for meat) rather than to keep using separate breeds for each purpose. However, the report does concede the point that a voluntary reduction in livestock productivity with the aim of reducing animal suffering is unrealistic from a cost perspective, and that more forceful measures are needed, including those of a legislative nature.

Germany does have fairly comprehensive animal protection laws (Tierschutzgesetz), of which paragraph 11b expressly forbids breeding and keeping practices that cause pain and suffering to vertebrate animals. But although this law has existed since 1986, it has only ever been enforced in the protection of companion animals (pets), while thus far not having been applied to the realm of food animals. This, precisely, is one of the issues on which the Green Party would like to effect a sea-change in Germany.

No doubt, the DBV is less than thrilled about this prospect. Dr Born opined that only animals that were content and happy in their environment would continue to deliver high-quality foodstuffs like meat, milk and eggs. And as much as everybody may wish for this 'theory' to be true, there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Animals in chronic discomfort will still produce foodstuffs, and as long as the cost-profit balance remains viable, the industry will insist on sticking to practices that would seem abhorrent to an outside observer. Price competition is so fierce in Germany (and elsewhere) that little room remains for humaneness, and maybe it is time for the law to finally grow a set of teeth and go about levelling the playing field, rather than amounting to little more than fancy words festering in a file.

At present, the onus is effectively on consumers, who, if they feel strongly enough about this issue, can opt to purchase meat, dairy products and eggs produced under higher animal welfare standards - for example, organic. However, as the 'Qualzucht' report and other organisations active in this field emphasise, supply cannot currently keep up with demand, and pricing structures remain a strong deterrent. As much as it may rile the DBV, the imminent elections are a suitable platform for bringing this issue once again to the attention of German consumers, who do have the right to vote with their vote, and not just with their money.



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