Arguing the EU Seal Products Ban (Part I) – Understanding the Ban

In 2009 the EC banned the import and sale of Seal products within its borders, through Regulation (EU) No 1007/2009 and the consequent implementing Commission Regulation (EU) No 737/2010. Recent years have witnessed a flurry of activity around these regulations including a case decided in the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and another being deliberated in the World Trade Organization (WTO). This post tries to decipher the reasoning behind choosing a comprehensive ban of seal products within the EU market rather than an option allowing limited commercial trade. Part II of this two part piece will look at the recently concluded arguments (April 2013) at the Dispute Settlement Panel of the WTO.

The aim of the two regulations is to prevent cruel hunting methods.  The wording of the regulations declare seals to be ‘sentient beings that can experience pain, distress, fear and other forms of suffering’ and ones that enjoy the concerns and the sensitivities of the European people and national governments.

However, that may not be enough for a blanket ban per se. After all, there are measures that allow for the control of Seal products placed in the European market. Why then did the European commission choose to take the route of a blanket ban rather than a less trade restrictive alternative? There are several reasons for the decision.

Seals are used in a variety of products with varying degrees of content. Anything from a blatant seal skin to a more subtle Omega-3 capsule ingredient may be derived from seals. Consumers may find it extremely difficult to differentiate a like-product that may or may not contain seal. However implementing a labelling scheme may be difficult and often disproportionately costly for producers of such products.

Secondly, if the objective of the regulation is to reduce animal suffering, then the nature of the seal hunt makes it impossible to continuously and effectively verify and supervise them. If the suffering of the seals cannot be alleviated by implementing more humane methods of hunting, then at the very least the number of seals suffering can be reduced by reducing the number of seals being killed. If the demand of an entire market (the EU) is taken away, then it stands to reason that the commercial incentive to kill more individuals is significantly reduced.

Also, the concerns of the citizens had led to several countries banning or considering the prohibition or control of seal products while other countries in the EU placed no such restrictions and even had hunts of their own. Not only did this make it more difficult for consumers within the EU market to make an informed choice in buying seal-free products but also, such differences in national legislation resulted in a fragmented internal market. National legislations controlling seal products could even be construed as technical barriers to trade within the internal market. Therefore, a complete ban creating a level playing field within the EU market was the only viable alternative.

However, this ban did attract the ire of several seal hunting countries outside the EU, most notably Norway and Canada. Cases were registered in two relevant forums – the ECJ and the WTO. The ECJ recently gave its verdict upholding the ban. Proceedings at the WTO are still on and the judgement of the Panel for dispute settlement is expected later this year. The discussions however, already make for some interesting reading. Part II of this blog post will discuss some of the arguments levelled by Norway and Canada and the counter arguments used by the EU.

Rohit Roy

Photo credit: ‘Respect for animals’:


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