Austrian law to worsen animal welfare- according to animal rights groups

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Unlike many countries in the European Union, Austria currently has no single, nationwide law that protects the rights of animals. At the moment it is up to each province to decide how much protection they should get. So the fact that the government is drawing up a draft for the first national animal protection law should be welcomed by animal welfare groups, right? Well - wrong. Many groups say the draft law will worsen rather than improve animal welfare in Austria.

Pay a visit to an average farm in Austria that breed's chickens for meat, and you'll find them housing their chickens in pens that allow for 20 birds per square metre. Yes that's 20 chickens per square metre - and it's legal. But if the new nationwide animal protection law, or 'Bundestierschutzgesetz', comes into affect - all farmers will be allowed to keep twenty-three chickens per square metre.

You'd expect an animal protection law to improve the welfare of animals, not worsen it. So what's going on? Daniel Kapp, spokesperson for the Ministry of Agriculture and Environment, says the law is about unifying standards across Austria - and more importantly bringing the country in line with EU standards.

"We have to find a fine balance between production standards in Austria and those in the EU. Because it makes little sense - and I think people understand and also from an animal rights point of view - to have extremely high standards in Austria that are not met in other European or accession countries. The effect would be that we drive production out of Austria and import goods and products that are produced abroad and to lower standards - even lower standards that they are in Austria. And I don't think that makes sense."

So it's about striking a balance between production costs and animal welfare. But the president of the animal protection group, Association Against Animal Factories, Martin Balluch, says the new nationwide law will be a disaster for animal welfare.

"Every single province in Austria has to decrease the level of protection for animals in certain ways. Just one example is the battery farming system. In 5 provinces in Austria this is already outlawed. But under the new law, it will be allowed in every single province again."

And the People's Party - who are champions of the new law - are not just having trouble winning over animal rights groups. Their coalition partners, the Freedom Party are also not happy. They are demanding that a ban on the slaughter of animals by traditional Jewish or Muslim methods be included in the law - to ensure that all animals are anaesthetised prior to being killed. But the People's Party say such a ban would contravene the constitution.

Even if the two coalition parties do finally agree - the tierschutzgesetz is by now means a done deal. As the bill concerns a constitutional law, it must also be approved by the Social Democrats - and they've already said it's falls far short of an animal protection law.