EU member states should encourage rabbit farmers to phase out conventional battery cages and replace them with healthier but affordable alternatives, such as park or pen farming systems, says the Agriculture Committee in a resolution voted on Wednesday. MEPs argue that improving rabbits’ welfare and living conditions would help prevent disease, thus reducing the need for intensive use of antibiotics that might end up in the human food chain.

“The mere fact that after so many years we are finally talking about minimum standards for the protection of rabbits is a success. Today we made progress in the right direction, but ideally we need binding EU rules. The fight for rabbit-specific EU legislation will continue”, said rapporteur Stefan Eck (GUE/NGL, DE). The draft non-legislative resolution was approved by 29 votes in favour to seven against, with nine abstentions.

An amendment calling for EU legislation on minimum standards for the protection of farm rabbits was rejected by a single vote (21 in favour, 22 against, two abstentions).
 
Improved animal welfare would benefit consumers too

Public health goes hand in hand with animal health, which depends inter alia on housing conditions, good animal husbandry and management, says the text.

To ensure that rabbit farms are better managed and monitored, MEPs encourage all EU states to gradually phase out the use of battery cages and replace them with alternatives that would allow for better disease-prevention and targeted checks. This could also help to cut the widespread use of antibiotics in intensive farming and thus benefit end consumers too, they say.

Finding a sustainable farming system

The EU Commission and member states should encourage research into the best housing systems to improve the welfare of different types of rabbits, say MEPs. They nonetheless stress the need to strike a balance between animal welfare, the financial situation of farmers and the affordability of rabbit meat for consumers, adding that the sustainability of rabbit farms must be ensured.

The EU Commission should propose guidelines and EU-wide recommendations on farmed rabbits’ health, welfare and housing, MEPs say. They also call on the Commission and member states to ensure that rabbit meat imported from outside the EU meets the same food safety and animal welfare criteria as that produced in the EU.

Compensating farmers for higher costs

To offset higher costs of alternative farming systems, the Commission should do more to support the sector and promote the consumption of rabbit meat, MEPs say. They insist on the need for specific support for breeders to cushion the impact of any new compulsory measure and suggest using EU rural development funding to support farmers who opt for higher-welfare alternatives.

Next steps

The committee text still needs to be scrutinised and endorsed by Parliament as a whole, probably at its 13-16 March plenary session in Strasbourg.

Background

Most rabbits farmed in the EU are reared in conventional cages, notes the resolution. Farmed rabbit housing systems have improved over time and alternatives to cages, such as park or pen farming systems, have been used, but they must be further improved and encouraged, MEPs say.

Although 340 million rabbits are slaughtered for meat in the EU every year, this represents less than 1% of the EU’s final livestock production. Output is falling steadily - by 3.9% in 2016 according to forecasts – because consumer demand is falling.

The EU is the world’s leading rabbit producer, ahead of China, which is its leading rabbit meat exporter. Around 99% of the EU’s rabbit meat imports originate in China.