Skip to main content

Schoolchildren who ran to the beach to meet the hunters returning from a seal hunt, are happy to help after being instructed by the elder behind how to carry the dead animal at Cape Dorset, Nunavut, on Nov. 10, 2010.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

A recent World Trade Organization ruling that upholds the European Union's ban on Canadian seal products is troubling, to say the least. The ruling allows the banning of imports over subjective concerns about animal welfare, without regard to the facts, and the federal government is right to appeal it.

Trade bans to protect animal welfare are perfectly legitimate. The EU has a strong history of protecting farm animals, and animals in general, from cruelty. Some North American farming practices, such as confining laying hens to tiny cages, would be illegal in Europe; it makes sense that the EU be allowed to ban animal-product imports from countries that don't meet its legal standards.

The WTO ruling goes much further, though. The EU seal ban, according to the WTO, is acceptable because it "fulfills the objective of addressing EU public moral concerns on seal welfare to a certain extent, and no alternative measure was demonstrated to make an equivalent or greater contribution to the fulfilment of the objective." But the same ruling also says that the EU "failed to make a prima facie case" that the ban is justified on grounds that the hunt harms "human, animal or plant life or health."

In other words, the WTO has ruled that the EU can ban the import of seal products out of concern for the animals' welfare, without having to prove that the concern is justified. Whether or not the hunt is, in fact, compatible with the slaughtering practices used to kill other animals, or is singularly cruel, is beside the point. What matters, as the International Fund for Animal Welfare wrote in a brief about this dispute, is that the ban "aims at the expression of moral opprobrium at animal cruelty."

Trade bans as expressions of moral opprobrium are fine when confined to prima facie (to use the WTO's term) cases of harm. The seal hunt is not nearly so clear-cut. Almost all animals slaughtered for human consumption are killed in the same manner as a seal: a blow to the head rendering them unconscious, followed by a bleeding out.

The celebrity-studded campaign against the seal hunt has persisted for decades, but it has never demonstrated that the slaughter of a seal is systematically worse than that of a cow or a chicken. On the contrary, the Canadian government insists the highly regulated seal hunt is humane, a claim supported by veterinarians who have studied it. As well, seals are never confined as livestock; they are, to borrow a popular term, the ultimate free-range animal.

But now the WTO has ruled that the facts don't matter in the face of public opinion. The ruling opens the door, as Canadian sealing advocates have quickly noted, to the banning of any animal product that appears to cause any suffering at all and against which a stubborn campaign can be mounted. Europeans should think about that as they chew on their foie gras, veal sausage and blood pudding tonight.