The decline of the spanish rabbit farming sector

Rabbit farming is primarily practiced in five European Union countries: Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, and Hungary. Although there are some differences, the production model is similar and results in the same health issues for the animals.

The latest report on rabbit farming from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Livestock of Spain describes the continuous decline in the sector's figures since 2015 as "concerning". Between 2022 and 2023 alone, 11% of rabbit farms dedicated to meat production have closed, leaving 1,412 such farms active in Spain. The rabbit population has also decreased by 6.6% compared to the previous year.

Regarding households, spending on rabbit meat has decreased by 19.25% between 2021 and 2022, and per capita consumption, currently at 0.75 kg, has halved since 2008. Nevertheless, Spain remains the leader in both production and consumption in Europe, followed by Italy and France.

The Spanish Association of Rabbit Farmers itself has acknowledged in a recent report that "rabbit meat is primarily sold with the head intact, which contradicts the growing perception of rabbits as pets and the reduced consumption of this type of meat among the younger population." This has prompted the industry to explore formats that disconnect the animal from the final product, such as hamburgers or meatballs.

While exports have dropped by 19.6% from 2022 to 2023, imports have risen by nearly 58%, with Portugal, where the breeding system is quite similar, being the main trading partner in both categories.

These data confirm the significant structural crisis that the industry has been grappling with for years. Rabbit consumption has plummeted due to cultural and social factors and increased consumer empathy, as many now view rabbits as pets. Meanwhile, production companies have been burdened by rising fixed costs.

This situation, prevalent in most producing countries, has led to the formation of alliances to stimulate consumption at all costs, primarily relying on European subsidies. Since 2022, the European Rabbit Association has been established, uniting national associations and rabbit federations from Germany, Belgium, Spain, France, Hungary, Italy, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Poland, and Portugal.

In 2018, INTERCUN and ASPOC launched a three-year campaign called "The Secret of Rabbit Meat," funded by European public funds, to boost the rabbit industry in Spain and France. The campaign aimed to rejuvenate the product's popularity and promote it among young people but seemingly had little success.

Most of these strategies, often backed by European funding, emphasize promises related to animal welfare and sustainability, which often contrast with the reality depicted in research like that of AnimaNaturalis.

The Netherlands and Hungary consider higher welfare standards due to demands from the countries they export to, such as Belgium or Switzerland. In southern Europe, France, and Italy, there has been a slight increase in the percentage of rabbits housed in systems aimed at reducing suffering, such as environmentally enriched parks.

Spain was singled out by the EFSA in 2020 for maintaining the least favorable housing system and showing no inclination to explore alternatives. The primary findings of the study were that conventional cages pose the greatest risk to rabbit well-being due to restricted movement (with a certainty ranging from 66 to 99%), and in the case of young rabbits, free-range outdoor models and elevated pens carry a high risk of thermal stress, thus not ensuring their well-being.

Compared to the other five housing systems employed in the EU, traditional cages also provide lower welfare for breeding does (with safety levels ranging from 66 to 90%). The other production methods utilized in different European countries include environmentally enriched pens, structurally enriched cages, elevated pens, open-air systems (fully or partially), and organic systems. According to the EFSA, the latter offer a higher level of well-being, although they constitute a small minority.

Transitioning to higher welfare systems is costly and likely to be ineffective. Currently, rabbit consumption in Spain is almost negligible, and the additional production costs would significantly increase the final product's price.

Presumably in response to the impending general ban on cages in farms set for 2027 and the growing consumer concern for animal welfare, the Agri-Food Technology Research Institute of the Generalitat de Catalunya announced in April 2023 that it would commence testing a new cage-free rabbit breeding system. In Catalonia alone, 30% of farms have closed in the last four years.