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Do the public care about pig welfare?

IF RETAILERS across Europe were selling illegal products the media would be up in arms.

We would be hearing calls for sanctions, of the need for the precautionary principle to be applied – and of the importance of regulations to be respected by those the general public assume will comply with the laws of the land.

This is, however, exactly what is happening with pigmeat – and from the media and Brussels there is a deafening silence as regulations banning sow stalls, which have been illegal in the UK for years, become Europe wide.

While the figures are being massaged in Brussels, the bottom line remains clear. A minority of 27 member states are in compliance with the new regulations – possibly as few as five; the EU's major pig producing countries are a long way from compliance, and some of the major suppliers to UK retailers are ignoring the regulations, without facing sanctions in the form of lost business.

This all contrasts with the situation at the height of the BSE crisis, when the regulations were applied with a vengeance on the UK. It is certainly a valid point that breaking animal welfare regulations poses no risk to human health – but if they are to be ignored there is little point in having the rules.

Equally, if consumers do not seek out pigmeat from countries that comply with the regulations, they clearly do not care as much about animal welfare as they claim – and it is this claim of public interest that is used by the Commission as a measure of the need for regulations.

This all means we have a regulation that no-one cares much about, but which has cost those farmers in compliance with it a lot. They have carried the cost burden for years, and just when it should be lifted it is being ignored.

This comes as no surprise, since it is exactly what happened twelve months ago with the ban on battery cages for hens – the only difference being that the level of compliance is even worse.

European Commission officials returning now from the holiday break will have to decide what to do about this. They will write formally to member states asking them to confirm their lack of compliance, and asking when this will be rectified. This is a slow track to eventual action in the European court.

The bigger issue is what they are going to do about non compliant pigmeat. It theory it should not be sold, and in practice it should certainly not be traded between member states.

However, given that the biggest pig producing countries are not complying and the level of trade between member states, this seems unlikely. In short, the Commission will huff and puff, but ultimately it will ignore this widespread flouting of what were supposed to be show-piece animal welfare regulations.

This might be acceptable if there was evidence Brussels was learning lessons from this. It is now clear that demands for additional welfare regulations come from pressure groups rather than the general public; it is also clear that these bring into disrepute the Commission's ability to ensure its rules are met.

However despite this, the Commission is still considering new animal transport journey limits, when those already in place are being ignored. The lesson being ignored is that regulations without sanction are just pointless red tape, and there is already no shortage of that in Brussels.

The big question, of course, is how do member states and farmers get away with this, when Scottish farmers are pilloried over sheep EID or land area issues related to single farm payments.

The answer is cross compliance – and the breaking of regulations on battery cages and now sow stalls confirms the big difference between CAP supported and other enterprises.

If this was not the case, the Commission could impose individual disallowances because regulations were being broken. It could also impose fines on the member state governments, as it has on Scotland and other UK regions over SFPs.

However, without that it is powerless in the face of what is effectively mass disobedience. It cannot fine every farmer; it cannot block trade because of the implications for national economies and consumers – and it cannot impose fines on member states until up to two years down the road, when the diplomatic route to the European court is exhausted.

And this, of course, is why Brussels loves cross compliance.

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