The confinement of farmed animals in excessively small cages and crates has long been a trademark of our industrialized food system. There’s been progress here and there — several countries and about a dozen US states have banned cage confinement to varying degrees, and increasingly, food corporations are ridding the practice from supply chains.
Still, the problem is pervasive, and most of the world’s egg-laying hens — about 6.5 billion — and tens of millions of female breeding pigs, or sows, remain in cages.
But this summer, Europe took a bold move to break away from this status quo, putting forward essentially the most ambitious plan ever by any government to end the cruel practice.
The European Commission — the executive branch of the European Union — announced in June a ban on cages for a number of animals, including egg-laying hens, female breeding pigs, calves raised for veal, rabbits, ducks, and geese, by 2027. The plan would cover hundreds of millions of farmed animals raised in 27 countries. It puts Europe on track to implement the world’s most progressive animal welfare reforms within the decade. If ultimately enacted, it could turn out to be a pivot point in the decades-long fight to ease animal suffering.
The plan is the culmination of a massive three-year effort by animal welfare groups, initiated by Compassion in World Farming, an anti-factory farming charity. The groups gathered over a million signatures from European citizens in support of the cage ban, which prompted the European Commission to make a formal reply, in which it expressed support for the measure and agreed to finalize a plan for a cage ban by the end of 2023.
For this proposal to be implemented into law, it will have to pass through two other bodies of the European Union — the European Parliament and European Council — both of which could weaken it.
The European Council, which is made up of the 27 EU heads of states, will be particularly hard to sway, with some members already claiming that the deadline to phase out cages is unrealistic. Meat lobbying groups are also devising strategies to delay the timeline, calling for more research, impact assessments, and a longer phaseout.
“These investments can easily cost hundreds of thousands of euros, if not millions ... we are talking about major investments that you simply cannot just decide on how to go forward, on your decision,” said Pekka Pesonen, secretary-general of Copa and Cogeca, an organization representing farmers and agricultural cooperatives across Europe, to Euronews.
Advocates also worry the ban might only apply to animals raised in the EU, meaning the law could be skirted by simply importing meat and eggs from caged animals.
Still, for the moment, things are looking good. In May, the European Parliament passed a resolution in favor of the cage ban. Some European commissioners have also been remarkably receptive to improving farm animal welfare, with Janusz Wojciechowski, EU commissioner for agriculture, going so far as to say, “A sustainable food system cannot exist without high animal welfare standards.”
And the fact remains that the plan’s very existence is a major sign of advancement for animal welfare. “It is the greatest unique piece of progress for farmed animals I have seen in my lifetime,” says Leah Garcés, who formerly worked on animal welfare campaigns in Europe and is now the president of Mercy for Animals, an international animal rights nonprofit based in California.
To be sure, the continent-wide cage ban won’t usher in utopian farming conditions. But it underscores just how far Europe has come in reversing some of its more inhumane farming practices — and raises the prospect of similar progress elsewhere in the world.
A brief history of Europe’s progress on animal welfare
The landmark EU cage ban proposal is being pushed forward against the backdrop of a yearslong march toward progress on animal welfare on the continent.
For decades, the EU has been ahead of the US on animal welfare: Factory farms in the EU tend to be smaller and less intensive than in the US, meaning that a greater proportion of farmed animals, including egg-laying hens and female breeding pigs, are reared in cage-free systems and generally subject to higher animal welfare standards.
That doesn’t mean that all animals in Europe are out on idyllic green pastures — far from it. EU animal farming is highly industrialized, and increasingly so. According to a 2016 survey by Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office, very large farms account for around 70 percent of animals reared in the EU, where they are kept in highly confined spaces and may be subject to cruel stunning methods at the slaughterhouse, like using electrical water baths for poultry and suffocating pigs with high concentrations of carbon dioxide. Meanwhile, small and medium farms that generally adopt higher animal welfare standards in the EU have been disappearing rapidly in the past 15 years.
But a series of reforms has also improved conditions for farmed animals across the continent.
The most significant reform took place in 1999, when the EU passed a directive eliminating battery cages, enclosures that confine egg-laying hens so tightly they are unable to fully open their wings for up to two years. The directive, which went into effect in 2012, didn’t ban cages for hens altogether — some egg producers simply switched to bigger cages — but it was a major milestone that reduced suffering for hundreds of millions of animals.
In the past two decades, the EU also passed laws to partially ban veal crates and limit the confinement of female sows in gestation crates — small metal enclosures that prevent the pigs from being able to turn around. (Pork producers can still use crates during the first four weeks of pregnancy and the week before giving birth.)
Adding to this momentum, some EU countries have gone above and beyond: Austria, Germany, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Luxembourg have banned the use of hen cages (though some of these bans have yet to take effect). Sweden and Norway have eliminated the use of gestation crates, and Germany will phase them out by 2028. Starting in 2022 in France, all shell eggs — the kind sold in cartons at the grocery store — must come from cage-free hens.
Most of these countries aren’t big producers, so their collective efforts will mitigate only some of the animal cruelty inflicted by factory farming. But these moves still illustrate a significant alignment in values and political will to reduce animal suffering on the continent. And at least a part of why this momentum exists stems from broad, aspirational EU directives that have guided member states on animal welfare since the ’60s.
Europe has passed directives to ensure farmers render certain species unconscious before slaughter, which was later replaced with a more stringent regulation that includes training requirements for handlers and more; a convention that mandated a farmed animal’s “physiological and ethological needs” be met; and a law that recognized the animals’ sentience.
Nowadays, animal welfare in Europe is underpinned by five freedoms based on the European Convention for the Protection of Animals Kept for Farming Purposes: freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury, and disease; freedom to express normal and natural behavior; and freedom from fear and distress.
To be clear, these directives are broad and vague enough for meat, dairy, and egg producers to be able to technically abide by them while still engaging in cruel practices, said Alice Di Concetto, a lecturer in European animal law at the University of Sorbonne in Paris and founder of the consultancy Animal Law Europe.
Despite the five freedoms, Europe’s billions of farmed animals are still clearly subjected to pain, injury, disease, fear, and distress, and are often unable to express normal and natural behavior. The European Commission doesn’t have a strong mechanism to enforce these policies: It can start infringement procedures and audit member states, but according to Di Concetto, these processes are both rare and hardly meaningful if the standards themselves are so low.
Still, experts say that having these directives as goalposts has served the EU in at least striving for stronger animal welfare protections.
In addition to the cage ban, advocates and policymakers have initiated other important measures in recent years. Last May, Germany pledged to ban the cruel and wasteful practice of killing day-old male chicks by 2022. Two months later, France followed suit. Recently, France, Germany, and five other countries called for an end to male chick culling across the EU, which would spare over 300 million chicks annually.
And this month, the European Parliament voted in favor of devising a plan to end animal testing for medical research and other purposes, and increase funding for the development of advanced non-animal testing methods.
The United States has also instituted some animal welfare laws over the past several decades, but they largely deny protections for farmed animals.
The 1966 Animal Welfare Act, for instance, a federal law that is considered the basis of animal welfare legislation in the United States, explicitly excludes farmed animals (along with animals commonly used in medical research, like fish, birds, rats, and mice). Similarly, the 1958 Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which sets standards for how animals are handled at slaughter plants, omits chickens and other birds — like Europe’s slaughter directive — meaning that about 9 billion chickens are missed by this law every year. (Plus, it’s weakly enforced.)
And while anti-cruelty laws exist at the state level, most exempt common industry practices, which enables meat and egg producers to continue employing cruel farming practices. What’s more: Any gains these laws have made have been dwarfed by the explosive rise in factory farming, cage confinement, and meat consumption of the past few decades.
Today, about 30 percent of US hens are cage-free. About 30 percent of US sows are mostly crate-free, but not entirely — pork producers still confine them for 30 to 40 days between pregnancies. The share of cage-free animals will increase on January 1, 2022, when California’s anti-cage law goes into effect, but even after that, the US will still lag well behind the EU when it comes to farmed animal welfare.
It’s difficult to tease out exactly why the EU and some of its member countries have been more proactive than the US to pass farm animal welfare laws, but one factor could be simply that Europe’s animal welfare movement is more mature than the US’s.
One of Europe’s first animal welfare laws dates back to 1822 in England: the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act. Two years later, the supporters of the law formed what is now known as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), and it wasn’t until 42 years later that an equivalent animal welfare society was established in the US — the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or ASPCA. The European anti-factory farming movement developed in the 1960s, a decade before the US’s.
To date, European commissioners have also tended to be more independent and less invested in upholding the status quo, at least compared to US policymakers. That’s certainly the case with Wojciechowski, the European commissioner for agriculture, who openly tweets in favor of animal welfare and recently reminded industrial farmers that “animals are not machines.” Meanwhile, Stella Kyriakides, European commissioner for health and food safety, has said, “I am determined to ensure that the EU remains at the forefront of animal welfare on the global stage and that we deliver on societal expectations.”
In contrast, USDA Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was a lobbyist for the dairy industry and has certainly not been a vocal champion of animal welfare.
The path ahead
Even before the proposal for the EU cage ban, member states were already on a clear path to eliminating caging. Around half of all eggs in Europe already come from cage-free hens, in part because of country cage bans, but also because advocacy groups have successfully lobbied over 1,100 grocers, restaurants, and food companies to eliminate cages from their supply chains.
This momentum has created an economic incentive for egg producers to join what is quickly turning into a profitable market targeted at more consumers. By investing in cage-free systems now, experts say, European farmers will face less competition from other farmers both inside the EU and in other areas still reliant on the cruelest methods — perhaps the strongest argument that the EU’s animal welfare standards should apply to imported meat and eggs as well.
At first, farmers using cage-free systems may be at a competitive disadvantage, but as the industry moves away from cage confinement — and especially if the EU-wide ban passes — cage-free producers will have already adapted to new modes of production and invested in the necessary equipment.
It will also force other countries like the US to adapt to these standards in order to sell to Europe, which would be a powerful driver of animal welfare more globally, says César Rodríguez Garavito, a director of the Center of Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University, who also works on animal rights law. Likewise, EU meat and egg exports will indirectly raise standards in other countries.
Ensuring the EU cage ban applies to eggs and meat produced within the continent and elsewhere is a major priority for advocates — and the agricultural industry. “We think that the EU must ensure the reciprocity of standards between imports and products produced in Europe,” Copa and Cogeca Secretary-General Pekka Pesonen told me in a statement. “An EU policy of double standards will have a devastating impact.”
Can the US animal welfare movement learn something from its European counterparts?
In the US, activists have little to no power to shape policies at the federal level. Most of the movement’s resources have been allocated to pass state laws, whether through ballot initiatives or legislatures, or to lobby corporations to adopt voluntary farm animal welfare standards. And maybe that’s okay.
In the EU, activists built up to their cage ban by passing laws in many countries before going for a big, continental push. That could be what works in the US, too — after all, 14 states have already passed cage bans. If a sufficient number of states do this, maybe, down the road, the US could reach a “tipping point” where it will be possible to pass a federal cage ban.
“We need to get to a point where there are enough states that are on board, that you’ve got a critical mass of states that are beneficiaries of this,” says Garcés, the animal welfare activist.
The US is headed there, thanks to the 14 state cage bans that have passed, and advocates successfully lobbying corporations to ban cages from supply chains. In 2015, only 6 percent of US hens were cage-free. Now, over 30 percent are. And as noted above, around one-third of US sows are crate-free for most of their lives.
Getting to a critical mass that would make a federal ban feasible, however, will not be easy. There’s no clear path forward — at least in the near future — to banning the production and sale of eggs from caged hens in the top five egg-producing states, or in some of the more densely populated states (besides California). The same goes for pork from confined sows. Those realities, combined with the powerful meat lobby and the US’s limited federal political mechanisms to enact meaningful change — will make this an uphill battle. Still, with the EU taking this step forward, it might be only a matter of time before others, including the US, will follow suit.
Jonathan Moens is a freelance journalist based in Rome. His work has appeared in the Atlantic, National Geographic, and Undark.