Beef and dairy producers in the United Kingdom (UK) breathed a collective sigh of relief last month as a 10-year ban on beef and live-cattle exports left over from the days of the BSE epidemic was lifted. The European Union's (EU) scientific advisors unanimously agreed to lift the ban on veal-calf transport to the EU from the UK. The okay for movement of older live cattle from the UK is expected to soon follow.

But alongside the celebrations over the decision came an onslaught of protests by animal rights activists appalled at the decision to reinstate live-animal transport from the UK.

At the heart of the debate is the sea crossing necessary to transport live cattle and dairy veal calves from the UK to the European continent, a trip that can take hours through rough waters. Animal rights activists protested live transport from the UK quite heavily before the ban was instated in 1996, and they're back, claiming that live transport overland in trucks is bad enough, but even worse is the sea crossing.

“We know from scientific research that long-distance transport can have serious, negative, short- and long-term effects on the health and welfare of young calves,” says Julia Wrathall, head of Farm Animals for the UK's Royal Society for the Protection and Care of Animals. “The additional complexity of a journey that includes a sea crossing can only add to the problems these animals will face.”

EU regulations require a one-hour feeding and rest break for every nine hours of truck transport before the next nine hours begins, a minimum which animal rights activists find irresponsible. Yet Wrathall and other activists worry the long journey to commercial veal farms on the continent, primarily located in the Netherlands, is only the beginning of animal cruelty.

Another aspect is the age-long debate over housing veal calves in individual crates. Legislation passed in 2005 bans the use of individual crates in the EU beginning Jan. 1, 2007, but they've been outlawed in the UK for 15 years.

“We fear the calves are going into worse conditions in the intensive veal systems on the European continent than they face here,” Lawrence Stevenson, press officer for UK-based Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) tells BEEF. “Calves don't travel well. They suffer and it's cruel.”

CIWF estimates transport of live calves will return to pre-ban levels of 500,000 dairy calves annually. But bird flu fears, which have tanked poultry demand in Europe, have turned consumers to veal. That could quickly boost UK exports.

According to Philip Tod, the European Commission's (EC) spokesperson on consumers, health and animal rights, the new animal transport protection measures taking effect Jan. 1, 2007, will also ban the transport of calves less than 10 days old.

But Eurogroup for Animal Rights, an umbrella organization for European animal rights groups, based in Brussels, Belgium, says the new legislation is barely an improvement on the old legislation and will not be revisited by the EC until 2010.

Many of the activists, like Eurogroup, contend there's no need for the transport of live cattle. Calves can easily be fattened in the UK and shipped as meat, they say, eliminating the transport issue completely. However, there's virtually no veal production in the UK due to a lack of consumer demand.

Meghan Sapp is a U.S. agriculture writer based in Brussels, Belgium.