The European Court of Justice (ECJ) however refrained from giving a precise definition of what circumstances would indicate this necessity, and said that national courts would have to decide.
Its ruling came in a Cypriot case, interpreting EU regulation (EC) No 854/2004 (amended by regulation (EC) No 1791/2006) on official controls on products of animal origin intended for human consumption. ECJ rulings are important because they say how EU regulations must be obeyed in all 28 EU member states.
In this instance, a Nicosia-based pigs, sheep and goats slaughterhouse, owned by Cypra Ltd, wanted to slaughter pigs on Sundays to meet the demands of an export contract for selling pig meat to Greece. It asked the Cypriot ministry of agriculture, natural resources and environment’s veterinary services department to send a vet to supervise the slaughtering, as required by Cypriot law.
However, the government refused to send a vet on Sundays, sparking legal action by Cypra. The Cypriot court initially backed the government, saying it had discretion to decide when to send a vet. But Cypra appealed and the Cyprus Supreme Court concluded EU laws, on which the relevant Cypriot regulations are based, were unclear. It declared it was "unsure as to the obligations on the competent national authorities and the limits on [their] discretion".
Ultimately ECJ judges said EU law insists that an official veterinarian be present at slaughterhouses to carry out ante-mortem inspections within 24 hours of animals’ arrival at a slaughterhouse and less than 24 hours before slaughter. But they accepted EU law does not set operating times or public holidays and does not "stipulate at all… whether they are required to have staff available on Sundays and public holidays".
It concluded regulators "cannot be required to satisfy every request for controls made by the slaughterhouses", but must be reasonable in dealing with such demands.
As a result, the ECJ said in such cases, national courts must assess whether veterinary services are given enough notice to appoint a vet on a given day and also "whether it is objectively necessary for the slaughter to take place on Sundays". As to whether such slaughtering is really necessary, "it is for the referring court to ascertain", said the ECJ.