Austria calls for stronger EU farming standards

Austria has some of the strictest farming standards in Europe. A new petition seeks to bring the rest of the bloc into line.

Austria calls for stronger EU farming standards
A rafter of turkey chicks is pictured at the Bauer's organic turkey farm in the Upper Austrian village of Weibern. Photo: JOE KLAMAR / AFP

As Katharina and Reinhard Bauer show off cosseted turkey chicks they highlight standards that they — and the Austrian government — would like the rest of the EU to adopt as well.

“On our farm the birds have lots of space,” Katharina explains on the organic farm the pair run together in Weibern, northern Austria.

They stress how delicate the business of raising turkey chicks is given their fragile state immediately after hatching. According to Reinhard they're “very sensitive, curious and affectionate”.

The couple says the birds, brought to Europe from the Americas by Spanish colonists in the 16th Century, must be raised in an environment as close to nature as possible to be fit for Christmas tables.

It's a view shared by the Austrian government, which is aiming to get EU partners on board in raising standards for turkey farming across the bloc.

Agriculture Minister Elisabeth Koestinger recently boasted that “the 'World Animal Protection' organisation has put Austria in first place in its animal welfare rankings, in comparison with 50 countries worldwide.”

In November Green Austrian MEP Sarah Wiener launched a petition, backed by the government, calling for sector regulations at the European level in line with Austrian practices.

Human scale

After chickens and pigs, turkeys are the third most commonly reared animal in the EU, with around 190 million slaughtered annually.

But while the 27-member bloc has set rules and minimum standards for raising chickens and pigs, there is no such set of requirements for turkeys.

Austria's roughly 120 turkey farms are by and large organised on a more human scale than larger operations found in Germany, Poland or Hungary.

Mostly family-run, Austria's farms are subject to regular inspections and usually contain no more than 6,000 birds.

With an average of two adult males per square metre, the density they are raised in is the lowest in Europe.

Even on farms with comparatively lower standards, chicks can move freely in daylight and enjoy beds of straw or wood shavings.

Those on farms on the next higher rung have winter gardens, and on organic farms they are raised in the open air.

Better conditions come at a price, however.

An average package of Austrian turkey costs 14 euros ($17), as opposed to eight euros for imported equivalents.

As a result, domestic turkey only represents 40 percent of total sales in Austria.

“I would be in favour of all of Europe seeing to it that animals have good conditions,” Katharina says as she gazes at her chirruping chicks.

And the push for higher standards has been taken on by some distributors too.

A few months ago, a major supermarket chain said it would only sell meat raised and slaughtered within Austria. It set a flat price of 10 euros per turkey breast, without cutting what it paid farmers.

A fair price

Whether or not the petition pushing for stricter EU regulations succeeds, the conservative-green Austrian coalition government has plans to increase the number of organic turkey producers by subsidising up to 35 percent of the required investments.

Increasing standards “is the absolute priority for our farmers,” says Georg Strasser from Austria's Chamber of Agriculture, stressing that animal welfare is a public health concern.

The use of antibiotics on Austrian turkey farms has fallen by 55 percent between 2011 and 2017, and animal welfare association Vier Pfoten is encouraged by the efforts being made.

“Guaranteeing a fair price for farmers who respect the animals is the key to achieving change,” director Eva Rosenberg says.

The Bauers would not doubt heartily agree — having just upgraded their facilities to provide their flock with supplemental creature comforts.

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Austria bans ‘senseless’ killing of chicks with new animal welfare rules

The Federal Government announced a new legislative package with stricter rules for animal welfare, banning the "senseless" killing of chicks, tighter rules for live animal transport and installing other protection measures.

Austria bans 'senseless' killing of chicks with new animal welfare rules

Austria’s Federal Government has put together a new set of rules for stricter animal welfare in the country, most notably banning the practice of mass killing and disposal of male newborn chicks.  

“This package of measures is a great success for animal welfare, which finally implements years of demands of animal rights activists,” explains Animal Welfare Minister Johannes Rauch in a press conference detailing the measures.

Rauch announced the end of the “senseless” killing of chicks. Instead, the minister explained that the animals would be culled and used as feed in zoos, saying there is a great demand and zoos have been importing meat for their animals. 

READ ALSO: Penguin rescued after being ‘kidnapped’ from Salzburg zoo

In the future, Austria will carry out “gender determinations” of the animals before they hatch to take “appropriate measures earlier”.

Rauch added that the “shredding” of chicks, a controversial culling measure, did not take place in Austria even before the new steps. 

Measures for cow and pig welfare

The present animal welfare package will end the uninterrupted, year-round tying of cattle from 2030.

For pigs, there will be an “incentive” to offer more space for the animals, with new and converted stables and cooling planned. Rauch said that the measures were a compromise and first step but that “we are not yet where we want to go”. 

READ ALSO: Austria to ban online ads offering pets for sale

The package also imposes new rules for live animal transport, including shorter transport times and a ban on transporting newborns. 

Most of the provisions will come into force from 2023, the minister added. The package will be officially voted in Parliament at the end of June. 

“Unacceptable”: Criticism from animal protection groups and opposition

Animal protection groups in Austria have criticised the federal government’s plan as unacceptable and a “weak compromise”. 

Pigs and cattle for fattening will still stand on full-coated soils, tail cropping and anaesthetic castration will continue to be common practice in piglets, and animals will be transported far too young and far too long, the Vier Pfoten group pointed out in a statement.

READ ALSO: Why Vienna is a haven for wild animals – and where you can find them

“There was not even a serious attempt to put an end to this cruelty to animals”, the group’s director Eva Rosenberg said.

Opposition SPÖ has also criticised the government plans, calling it “a mess”, according to Vienna Animal Welfare spokesperson Eva Persy. The NEOS parliamentary groups said the measures were “pure cosmetics”, and the proposals do not go far enough.