Ensuring animal welfare is a "high priority" in Ireland’s calf export trade, with a “high number of controls” carried out by the Department of Agriculture during transport, a European Commission health and food safety audit has found.

The audit found these “comprehensive procedures” are accompanied by “stricter rules” and “additional measures” which go beyond EU regulatory requirements.

It was also concluded that a “wide range of effective and proportionate” enforcement actions are used when non-compliances with transport regulations are identified.

Auditors stated that “good communication and collaboration” with authorities in France ensures that there is sufficient capacity in Cherbourg to unload, feed and rest animals before ships leave Irish ports.

One alleged weakness identified by the audit was that Ireland does not enforce a maximum 12-hour feeding interval recommended by the European Food Safety Authority.

However, the Department responded to this concern by stating that Ireland does not see the recommendation cited as creating a “legal obligation” to feed unweaned calves on ferry journeys from Ireland to neighbouring member states.

The Department’s response argues that “nothing in the wording” of the regulation that sets out a legal obligation to enforce this interval, as the regulation insists on this feeding interval only where “necessary” to avoid injury or undue suffering.

Irish regulations already rule out any transport that causes injury or undue suffering, the reply goes on to reiterate.

The auditors also claim that the Department was not assessing the suitability of the plans exporters must put in place in the case of emergencies arising during transport.

Department gives the figures

The Department’s response to the audit’s findings focuses on studies which show Irish calves exported to the Netherlands having low mortality both during transport and after arriving on farms.

In study conducted between 2017 and 2020, exported Irish calves eight weeks’ mortality rates were 46% lower than calves from Germany – the Netherlands main source of imported calves for veal – and 19% lower than the rate seen in calves sourced within the Netherlands itself.

The Department’s analysis of journey logs has also shown the mortality during transport to be well below one-tenth of 1%.

These mortality figures are less than those expected from calves of a similar age remaining on farms for a period of two days, the Department stated.

“[The figures are] scarcely consistent with a contention that the Irish system causes injury or undue suffering to these calves during transport.”

Further studies

A study from Wageningen University in the Netherlands was cited by the Department as showing that Irish calves transported to Dutch veal farms had an average antibiotic usage over 30% lower than calves that traveled shorter distances, such as those from Germany or the Netherlands itself.

Teagasc research was also under way when the letter was drafted which was to investigate whether electrolytes or milk replacer can be fed to calves on ferries to further improve welfare during transport.

The audit was carried out in June 2022.