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European Union


The European Union (EU) often touts its animal welfare legislation as among the most progressive in the world. The European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, has itself proclaimed that the EU “is leading” on animal welfare. This week's guest writer and founder of Animal Law Europe, Alice Di Concetto will look at animal law in the EU.

While it is true that the EU can boast the most numerous legislative acts pertaining to the treatment of animals, quantity does not equal quality. EU agricultural legislation in the realm of animal protection, historically and in more recent times, does little beyond codify common industry practices. As a result, EU legislation only limits the poor treatment of animals to a marginal degree on farms and in laboratories and zoos.

Facing societal pressure, and as the result of the EU Green Deal for a more sustainable agriculture, the EU announced it would undertake a sweeping revision of farm animal welfare legislation by 2023. This revision presents a valuable occasion for animal advocates given the many shortcomings of EU legislation as it currently stands. Moreover, if carried out properly, this revision represents a chance to bring EU legislation in alignment with the EU Constitution, which recognises animal sentience and requires the Union and the Member States to take animal welfare into account when regulating agricultural, scientific, and other activities.

Farmed Animals

Today, EU farm animal welfare legislation is comprised of seven laws:

  • One general act that sets minimum rules for all farmed animals – for all farming purposes (Directive 98/58), which covers all animals farmed for food, fibre, or fur purposes, except invertebrates. This act sets general principles regarding space allowance, building specifications and access to feed and water. However, the language of the provisions is vague and almost always allows for broad exemptions to general principles through the enactment of species-specific acts.

  • Four “species-specific” acts that cover hens (Directive 1999/74), calves (Directive 2008/119), pigs (Directive 2008/120), and broiler chickens (Directive 2007/43). These species-specific acts set a very low bar for the protection of animals, by allowing the use of cages for egg-laying hens, as well as for sows and calves. The Broilers Directive further allows extreme density levels for broiler chickens of up to 42 kg/m2, which is the equivalent of nine animals per square meters. All these acts also allow for the mutilations of animals, such as the dehorning of calves, the debeaking of chicks; and the tail docking, tooth grinding, and castration of piglets without the use of anaesthesia or analgesia.

  • Two acts that regulate the treatment of animals during transport (Regulation 1/2005) and slaughter (Regulation 1099/2009). The Slaughter Regulation allows for virtually all methods of killing, including chick grinding. It also allows the use of CO2 for stunning for pigs, and waterbath stunning for poultry, both of which, by the European Commission’s own account, cause disproportionate suffering to animals. The Transport Regulation sets limits on the duration of long-distance transport, but such limits can go as high as 24 hours for pigs. A 2015 ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) further required that Member States had to ensure that all convoys would comply with EU rules on the transport of live animals, even those that travel outside EU borders. The ECJ caselaw has never been codified into EU legislation and the European Commission never undertook effort to ensure its proper enforcement.

Overall, EU legislation for farmed animals suffers from low standards, vague and incomprehensible language, and under-enforcement. Another shortcoming is that there are no species-specific regulations for aquatic animals or dairy cows, both of which are covered under General Farming Directive, as well as the two regulations on transport and slaughter. This is an issue because dairy cows and aquatic animals are subject to specific types of treatment which are not addressed in the General Farming Directive.

A final issue is the lack of consistency across EU legislation in other fields of animal welfare. For instance, cephalopods such as octopi are not protected under the General Farming Directive, but they are included in the scope of the EU legislation on animals used for scientific purposes.

Animals Used for Scientific Purposes

The EU’s Directive 63/2010 on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes is arguably the most ambitious of all EU animal welfare laws. The scope of this Directive is quite large since it includes all live, non-human vertebrate animals and cephalopods. The Directive further sets an objective of complete transition to animal-free research, and, until that goal is achieved, this legislation sets specifications for the housing of animals, as well as which methods are lawful to use in their killing. Under the Directive, the testing on non-human primates and great apes is subject to especially tight restrictions. Finally, the Directive outlines a thorough inspection system.

However, as evidence of the numerous shortcomings of this Directive, some EU Member States did not implement the derogation allowing for the use of great apes for experimentation purposes. The Italian rules also prohibit the raising of dogs, cats, and monkeys for experimentation purposes. Italian law further restricts experimentation on animals for military purposes.

Animals in Zoos

Although the EU does not have competence to regulate the use of animals in other entertainment settings, circuses and on film sets for example, the EU Legislature does regulate the keeping of animals in zoos based on the purported role these establishments play in the conservation of animals.

Directive 1999/22/EC on the keeping of wild animals in zoos thus sets rules for the licensing and inspection of zoos to ensure they comply with the EU law on the conservation and protection of wild animal species. However, the Directive fails to specify standards on the enrichment of enclosures and in fact provides no regulation on the treatment of animals whatsoever. Most importantly, this Directive supports the industry idea that zoos contribute to species conservation, something which is contested by many animal advocates.

Wild Animals (Conservation and Hunting Regulations)

The EU Legislature has been proactive in banning cruel hunting methods on the grounds of species conservation.

First, the Birds Directive (Directive 2009/147/EC) bans traditional hunting methods, such as glue trap hunting. Such a prohibition was confirmed in an ECJ ruling against France in 2021, which further recognised that, in addition to serving conservation purposes, traditional hunting methods harm the welfare of birds.

Since 1991, the EU has also prohibited the use of leghold traps on wild animals hunted for their fur by way of Council Regulation 3254/91. This ban has extraterritorial effects since it further prohibits the import of pelts and other wild animal-source products that come from non-EU countries where hunting with leghold traps is legal.

Finally, Regulation (EC) No 1007/2009 on trade in seal products bans the imports of so-called “seal products” originating from seal hunting, which the EU considers to be an immoral practice. Canada issued a challenge against the EU, claiming that the ban on the importation of seal products amounted to an unfair trade barrier. However, in a 2014 opinion, the World Trade Organisation’s Dispute Settlement Body sided in favour of the EU; thus, the EU ban on products made with hunted seals remains.

What’s Next for Animals?

In 2020, the European Commission committed to propose a new legislation on farm animal welfare by 2023. The following year, in June 2021, the European Commission further committed to end the use of cages for laying hens, rabbits, pullets, broiler breeders, layer breeders, quail, ducks, and geese; farrowing crates for sows; and sow stalls and individual calf pens. This commitment followed the signature of the European Citizens’ Initiative – an official petition to the EU – which gathered 1.4 million signatures.


Although the EU claims to be leading on animal welfare, a closer look at the standards in the legislation reveal that, in practice, EU laws are too accommodating towards industry practices, to the detriment of animals. The EU farm animal welfare legislation is in particular need of reform, as it has limited itself to codifying into law common industry practices typical of industrial farm animal production. The upcoming revision of EU farm animal welfare is an opportunity for the EU to live up to the reputation it seeks.

Getting Advice

This post is not legal advice and should not be relied on as such. If you require legal advice on animal protection laws, please contact

In addition you can find more information about animal protection laws in the European Union here and here

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