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New challenges, new approach

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ANNUAL reports can give a useful insight into the philosophy of an organisation, and Animal Health 2004 – the Report of the Chief Veterinary Officer*, which was published last week, is no exception. Like previous CVOs’ annual reports, it contains a wealth of information and statistics relating to Great Britain’s animal health status up to the end of the year, and will be invaluable as a source of reference. At the same time, there have been a number of changes in DEFRA in recent years. The annual report reflects this, and gives a clear indication of how the management philosophy has changed.

This is illustrated in the foreword, in which Dr Debby Reynolds, in her first annual report as CVO, notes that DEFRA aims to make animal health and welfare policies ‘more effective and sustainable’, and that it will be taking ‘a more strategic approach to policies’. 2004, of course, saw the launch of the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy (AHWS). This is described by the CVO as a ‘key milestone’, reflecting a move to a ‘more strategic role for DEFRA, and clearer partnership working with delivery partners’. The AHWS makes its presence felt throughout the CVO’s report, and underpins discussion of everything from surveillance and contingency planning to DEFRA’s research programmes and efforts to control bovine TB.

The chapter on bovine TB is, once again, the longest in the report, and describes the disease as ‘one of the most difficult animal health problems that the farming industry faces in Great Britain today’. About 5·6 per cent of cattle herds were affected by TB restrictions at some point in 2004, although in ‘hotspot’ areas such as the south west of England, the percentage was much higher. The CVO’s report gives a useful overview of TB testing results, as well as discussing progress during the year in developing a revised TB strategy. It also draws attention to a forthcoming EU ban, due to come into force on January 1, 2006, on the sale of milk from reactor animals.

As the annual report points out, ‘the scale of the challenge facing both the Government and industry in seeking to reverse the long-term upward trend in bovine TB is significant’. DEFRA’s revised strategy was published in March this year but served, if anything, to highlight the extent of the challenges that remain (VR, March 5, 2005, vol 156, pp 293, 294-296).

A chapter on BSE charts the continuing decline in the epidemic, to the extent that the UK has recently been recognised as being of ‘moderate’ rather than ‘high’ risk status for BSE by the European Food Safety Authority (see Letters, p 718 of this issue). This recognition is important, and should pave the way for the UK to trade in beef on the same basis as other EU countries. Easing the beef export ban will, however, still depend on a successful outcome to an inspection by the EU’s Food and Veterinary Office next month and on agreement by other member states. The decline in the BSE epidemic has also led the British Government to announce a ‘managed transition’ towards lifting the over-30-months rule. The switch to BSE testing of cattle will happen when ministers are satisfied that the testing regimen is robust and various other measures are in place.

The report draws attention to DEFRA’s stated intention of updating the Veterinary Surgeons Act, but gives no clues as to when this might happen. Meanwhile, it reaffirms DEFRA’s position in response to concerns, highlighted by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACom) in 2003, about a shortage of farm animal practitioners (VR, November 1, 2003, vol 153, pp 542-544). It does not rule out intervention in this area if a case can be made, but says there is ‘no evidence of market failure’. ‘We are training more vets than ever before and there is clear evidence that they want to be involved in large animal work. However, our research does indicate that the early bad experiences of some new qualifiers has resulted in a drift towards small animal work.’

DEFRA’s response to the EFRACom, the annual report says, reflected one of the key messages in the AHWS, namely: ‘The veterinary profession needs to provide the types of services required by a changing livestock industry. The role of the vet has traditionally focused on the treatment of disease and this remains a crucial aspect of their responsibilities. There is, however, a strong case for a shift in focus towards services which prevent disease, such as farm health planning.’

The annual report provides a useful summary of the results of surveillance in 2004, as well as of DEFRA’s animal welfare activities and work relating to food safety and public health. Comparison with previous reports is revealing, and gives an indication of how priorities have changed. There is, for example, greater emphasis on international disease monitoring than seemed to be the case a few years ago, and a wider mix of species is considered. To an extent, this reflects changing circumstances and the fact that animal disease continues to present new challenges. It is precisely those challenges that the AHWS is intended to address. The latest report indicates the extent to which the AHWS is influencing DEFRA’s thinking and how, in line with government policy, DEFRA plans to separate the development of policy from policy delivery. That philosophy was taken further in April this year, when the State Veterinary Service was launched as an executive agency. It will be interesting to see how the new agency beds down and, by the time of next year’s report, how much further the AHWS has progressed.


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