The number of beef and dairy cattle exported from the US in 2010 to countries other than Canada and Mexico more than quadrupled over the previous year. Live animal exports are up dramatically, especially cattle, as countries like Turkey and Kazakhstan try to establish breeding herds. Moreover, exports are projected to remain high in the coming years.
While some exported animals are flown to their destination, others are subjected to ocean journeys that can last weeks. Last year alone, more than 20,000 pregnant dairy cattle left from the east coast on ocean voyages to Turkey lasting more than two weeks. Calves have been born during some of these shipments, suggesting that either the cows were too far along in their gestation to be safely and humanely transported, or that they gave birth prematurely, which could be an indicator of stress.
During transport, many stressful experiences—including inadequate ventilation, noise, motion sickness, and heat stress—severely impact animal welfare and make the animals more susceptible to illness and disease. Mortality is known to be much higher in lengthy sea transport than in domestic truck transport. While AWI recommends that no animals be transported such long distances and for such long periods, if they are, it is critical that only fit animals make the journey.
To ensure that only healthy and fit animals are subjected to the rigors of international transport, AWI and the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) have petitioned the USDA to adopt “fitness to travel” requirements for all farmed animals exported to any foreign country except those traveling overland to Canada or Mexico. AWI and WSPA are recommending that the USDA employ the fitness requirements included in the animal transport standards of the World Organisation for Animal Health (or “OIE”).
Unfit animals, according to OIE, include those unable to stand or bear weight on all four legs, are blind in both eyes, have unhealed wounds, are extremely young, or are pregnant and in the final stage of gestation. The birth of calves during some of the cattle shipments strongly suggests that USDA inspectors are not following the OIE’s internationally-recognized fitness requirements.
Many of America’s biggest agricultural trading partners, including Canada, Australia, and members of the European Union, have already enacted fitness to travel standards. Implementation of such requirements by the US will help harmonize national laws pertaining to international transports, reduce animal suffering, and protect both human and animal health.
The fitness to travel petition is available on the “Farm Animal Policy and Public Comment” page of the AWI website.