Animal Welfare Not a Trade Barrier says WTO in EU Seal Case

Monday, 25 November, 2013
Brussels, Belgium

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) today released its first panel ruling on animal welfare in the trade dispute between  Canada and Norway challenging the European Union regulation forbidding the placing on the market of seal products derived from commercial hunts. Concluding  that  animal welfare is a globally recognised issue and a valid public moral concern,  the panel considered that the EU was right in adopting trade restricting measures to address these concerns. The Seal Regulation did not pass the WTO test completely and some of the exception to the trade ban, allowing products from indigenous hunts and marine management culls will need to be adapted.

“The report from WTO panel is a victory for seals, animal welfare and Europeans,“ said Sonja Van Tichelen, IFAW EU Regional Director. “EU leaders can be proud that they have simultaneously protected seals, represented the needs of their citizens and respected EU obligations under the WTO – that is not a simple task.”

The WTO, the intergovernmental organisation of 194 countries is the free trade body governs and enforces free trade rules has never before made statements or rulings on animal welfare. A common but untested belief of many regulators was that countries were not allowed to impose trade restrictions on the basis of how a product is produced. This view is now challenged with potentially great opportunities for the welfare of animals.

Although the EU has other animal welfare based trade restrictions in place such as a marketing ban for cosmetics tested on animals or a ban on cat and dog fur, the majority of animal welfare laws in the EU impose standards on EU products but allow the import of products from countries with no animal welfare legislation. While EU has banned battery cages for egg production, veal crates and sow stalls, consumers may still find products from these systems on the shelves as legislators have been hesitant and worried for WTO disputes on animal welfare.

The panel outcome is open to appeal from the parties. If there is no appeal by end of January the ruling becomes part of the WTO jurisprudence. The EU will still need to amend its laws to bring it in line with the panel report.

Key Facts:
• The WTO panel determined that the main element of the EU ban on seal products is compliant under WTO rules.
• The WTO panel determined that the Inuit exemption to the EU ban on seal products is in violation of WTO rules. The panel takes issue with how the exception is applied, stating that it is not ‘even handed’ and essentially does not amount to a “legitimate regulatory distinction
• The WTO panel determined that the MRM exception is also not a “legitimate regulatory distinction” and that it violates TBT article 2.1. 
• All of the Panel Reports findings are subject to appeal by Canada, Norway or the European Union and the parties have 60 days to file an appeal (appeals will likely be made in January 2014). The appeals process takes 90 days.
• Russia, and not the EU, represented the largest market for Canadian seal products – reportedly 90% of the market. In 2011, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and the Russian Federation banned the import and export of fur skins of harp seals and their whitecoat pups, a ban which went unchallenged and remains in place today. IFAW Press release
• 33 countries now ban the trade in seal products.
• The commercial seal hunt requires support from the Federal and Newfoundland & Labrador Governments in order to stay afloat. In the last two years, Newfoundland & Labrador loaned Carino, the sole seal skin processor, more than $7 million in taxpayer money to stockpile seal skins.
• The landed value of Canada’s 2013 commercial seal hunt was about $2.9 million and 844 sealers participated in the hunt.
• Seals are commercially hunted primarily for their skins and flippers, and the rest of the animal is discarded into the ocean. Other than skins, and a small amount of flippers and fat, there was no meat reported landed at the 2013 commercial seal hunt.
• 1983 Europe bans importation of whitecoat harp seal and blueback hooded seal products.
• 2009 EU bans the import of all seal products, with an exemption for Inuit. IFAW was consulted by the EU as a key stakeholder on the development of the implementing regulations of the ban.
• August 20, 2010 EU ban comes into force and applies to seal products that are produced in the EU and to imported products, with an exemption for Inuit and aboriginal peoples.
• February 18, 2012, Canada and Norway challenged the European Union’s seal products trade ban at the World Trade Organization (WTO).
• November 25, 2013 WTO panel releases ruling on Canada and Norway’s challenge

January 2014 is when parties must indicate whether they intend to appeal the WTO panel ruling




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