top of page

Legal protections for animals in different countries

Updated: Mar 25

In the fight for animal welfare, different laws and challenges depend on the country and region. In this article, we give contrasting examples of the United States and the European Union to showcase the varying legal protections and obstacles in advocating for the welfare of farmed animals. 

The U.S. vs the EU: 

Law in the United States: Animal law is linked to the country's common law system, which means court decisions can set examples for future cases. This setup allows lawyers to challenge old laws and push for new ones. In the U.S., litigation (in other words, fighting court cases) can significantly improve how animals are treated. 

Animal law and advocacy work: Advocates often work on two fronts: fighting for animals in court and pushing for new state and federal laws. An example of an animal law advocacy initiative is the “Proposition 12” ruling. 

Law in the European Union: Here, animal law is more about working within the legislative system. Because the EU is made up of many countries with a civil law tradition, the focus is more on making and updating laws. 

Animal law and advocacy work: There's a belief that lawyers have fewer chances to establish precedents in the EU compared to the US. However, in the civil law systems that are common across Europe, court decisions can indeed set precedents when there isn't a law that specifically addresses the issue at hand. This process is similar to common law systems. The actions taken in court can significantly influence animal welfare laws. 

Alice’s Take:

Different Legal Cultures 

When looking at legal issues and changes in animal law, it's important to see how different countries have different legal systems and cultures. Alice believes there is minimal use of litigation-based strategies in continental Europe. That primarily stems from a distinct legal and advocacy culture, along with more limited access to courts for European animal advocacy groups compared to their counterparts in the US.

She observes that many organisations view going to court as an overly aggressive stance against the government. Consequently, they avoid litigation, fearing it might hurt their efforts to influence legislative processes. However, Alice notes a cultural shift within the environmental protection and human rights movements over the past decade, with these groups increasingly turning to litigation as a strategy. Yet, she points out that litigating on behalf of animals is still relatively unexplored and in its early stages of development.

Deep Dive on the United States: 

In the United States, protecting animals, especially those on farms, is a growing concern. However, laws and regulations often face resistance from the agricultural industry.5 Another challenge is that federal laws, like the Animal Welfare Act, often don't cover farm animals. In such cases, activists need to focus on specific issues, for example, how animals are kept, and advocate for banning cruel confinement practices.6

How Laws Are Made:

Laws are created and implemented through a structured process. This includes both federal laws, which apply to the entire country, and state laws, which only apply to individual states. There are two main ways laws are made:

  • Ballot Proposals: In 26 states, people can suggest new laws by collecting enough signatures to put their proposals on a ballot. This lets everyone in the state to vote on it.7

  • Legislative Initiatives: Laws can also be proposed by elected officials at the state level. These laws go through a detailed process, including discussions and votes, before they can be approved.8

What Does Setting Precedence Mean?

Precedents are very important in the U.S. They are court decisions that serve as a reference point for future cases. This is particularly significant in higher courts, like the Supreme Court, where the rulings become a guide for handling similar issues down the line. It is crucial in areas like animal welfare, where new legal standards can make a big difference.

Example of Setting a Precedent: Proposition 12

The Supreme Court supported California's Proposition 12, which sets strict rules against confining farm animals in small spaces. It was a significant victory, as Propositional 12 bans the in-state production and sale of animal products in extreme confinement. This legal decision is an essential precedent in acknowledging and improving the welfare of animals.9

Taylor’s Take:

Proposition 12

Taylor highlighted the wide-reaching impact of California's Proposition 12, pointing out its significance beyond just California. California is one of the world's biggest economies, so its legal standards often influence other areas. This Supreme Court's decision didn’t just improve conditions for a massive number of animals (specifically, chickens) in California; it also paved the way for similar animal welfare laws throughout the United States.

Taylor also shared her experience winning a case involving the rescue of wolves. This case showed how individual wins can establish state-level precedents that support animal welfare. Even when animals are considered "valueless," a small win might be enough to challenge current views and legal definitions, furthering animal rights. These victories are crucial as they can transform billions of animals’ lives by establishing new legal standards.

The EATS Act Challenge: 

Despite progress made through Proposition 12, ongoing challenges exist. For example, a federal law is being proposed called the "Ending Agricultural Trade Suppression (EATS) Act." EATS could override state-level animal welfare rules like Proposition 12. It aims to establish federal laws that decide on practices across all states, affecting various regulations and hindering progress.10

Alene’s Take:

Importance of Setting Precedences  

Alene's efforts in animal law reveal the tough task of getting society to recognise and support animal rights. Working with Legal Impact for Chickens (LIC), she uses strategic lawsuits to improve farm animals’ living standards. Winning legal battles plays a vital role in pushing the agenda for animal protection. Alene is very careful in picking which cases to take on, choosing those that promise to make a significant difference in the lives of animals and stand a good chance of winning. Her approach is not just about winning individual cases; it's about setting legal benchmarks that can shape the larger legal landscape. Alene's goal is to get companies to follow state and federal laws protecting animals throughout the United States.

Deep Dive on the European Union: 

In the European Union, there's a growing focus on how food, especially plant-based alternatives, is labelled and how farm animals are kept. These issues reflect broader concerns about animal welfare and consumer information.

How Laws Are Made:

In the European Union (EU), the process of creating new laws is usually a long process and involves many steps. Here's a brief explanation: 

  1. Starting with a Proposal: The whole process kicks off when the European Commission comes up with a proposal for a new law. 

  2. Getting Reviewed and Approved: After that, this proposal goes to two important groups for a closer look: The European Parliament (officials elected by citizens) and the Council of the European Union (representatives from the governments of the member states). Both of these need to agree on the proposal for it to move forward.

  3. Making It Official: Once the European Parliament, the Council and the European Commission agree on the final version, the law gets officially adopted. It's then published so everyone can see it and applies to all EU countries. Each country then codifies this new law to their own national law.

Labelling Debates: 

The EU is looking into new laws that would change how plant-based foods are labelled. The planned changes would limit the use of words usually linked with meat and dairy, such as "milk" and "cheese," for plant-based items. This effort, influenced by the meat and dairy sectors, is meant to stop shoppers from getting mixed up. However, it might greatly affect how people perceive plant-based foods.11

"End the Cage Age": The "End the Cage Age" movement, fueled by public support, gathered more than 1.4 million signatures to stop caged farming in the European Union. This effort was initially successful, with the European Commission agreeing to make regulatory changes by amending EU law to enact an EU-wide ban on the use of cages in animal agriculture. However, the Commission's slow progress in banning cages highlights why continuous advocacy is important. Ongoing efforts are needed to ensure organisations like the European Commission stick to their promises. Continued activism is crucial in making real policy changes.12

Alice's Take:

"End the Cage Age"

Alice talked about the challenges she faced trying to get the European Union (EU) to adopt better policies for the welfare of farm animals. The European Commission’s move to not follow through showed how tough it is for those fighting for animal welfare to make real changes in EU laws. In Alice's opinion, the challenges advocates have faced in getting the EU to act on its promise should be used as a teachable moment. More particularly, this experience shows that advocates in the EU would benefit from expanding the kind of actions they are engaged in. There are many examples that animal and environmental advocates undertake around the world that could be replicated in the EU. These include litigation-based campaigns and coordination when influencing the EU institutions between groups with different activism cultures. 



bottom of page