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THINK of the effort that has gone into devising the UK’s Animal Health and Welfare Strategy over the past two or three years, and multiply it by 25. Add a nought or two to take account of different approaches in each member state and you start to get an idea of the scale of the task facing the European Commission as it attempts to develop a new strategy to improve the prevention and control of animal diseases in the European Union (EU). Thirteen years after the establishment of the single European market, and two years after the last round of EU enlargement, there can be no doubt that the review is timely. It is also hugely important. In truth, it would be hard to quantify the work involved in the exercise, but few would deny that the task is daunting.

Plans to revise the strategy were announced by the European Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner, Markos Kyprianou, in December 2004, who remarked that ‘The devastating social and economic consequences of diseases like foot-and-mouth disease or avian influenza demonstrate the importance of a strong and effective animal health policy at EU level. The Commission intends to develop a new and improved animal health strategy for the EU, to go beyond what has been achieved with the existing animal health policy.’ Animal disease outbreaks, he pointed out, were costly, and there were also ethical issues related to the mass slaughter of animals when controlling an outbreak. In addition, there was concern about the impact of certain diseases on human health. The new EU animal health strategy would aim, therefore, ‘to develop the policy of disease prevention, make emergency vaccination a more viable option, simplify the legislation and make better use of financial resources’.

A start has already been made in developing the strategy, and the Commission is well on the way to completing an external evaluation of the existing policy and options for change. This has involved consultation with stakeholders both inside and outside the EU, and a web-based questionnaire survey, to which the BVA is responding. The results will be used to underpin Commission deliberations in the coming year to determine its animal health strategy from 2007 to 2013. Such exercises can seem somewhat removed from the day-to-day realities of veterinary practice, but they invariably have an impact in the not-so-long term.

The exercise provides an opportunity to take stock of the animal health measures in the EU, and strengthen and rationalise policies. The existing legislation has grown over the years, and some of it dates back to the 1960s. The creation of the Single Market in 1993 was a major force for harmonising animal health controls across EU member states, requiring that animals could be traded freely and safely within the EU, as well as controls on imports at EU borders. Since then, EU action has been driven by major public health concerns such as BSE, epidemic diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease and, more recently, concerns about avian influenza. New challenges will continue to present themselves. Clearly, there is merit in looking at the issues in the round, and developing a more coherent approach.

There is much to consider in developing a policy that can work across 25 member states but, from a veterinary perspective, issues that seemed important when the Single Market started operating in 1993 are equally important today. As far as movement of animals and animal products is concerned, health controls will always be necessary and must be proportionate to the risks. Animals must be identifiable and their health status certified, with records being kept of their movements so that they can be traced. Now, as then, measures relating to intra-Community trade and imports into the EU must be implemented and enforced equally effectively in all member states, not least because, with ‘free movement’ of animals within the EU, any shortcomings on the part of one member state can have serious consequences for another.

As the Commissioner recognised, there is a need to place greater emphasis on disease prevention, and not just on eradication and control. This, in turn, will involve strengthening disease surveillance, at field, member state and EU level. An effective animal health policy will depend on a sound veterinary infrastructure, and effort must be devoted to ensuring that necessary expertise is available, whether in research, state veterinary services or ‘grass roots’ practice, both to implement policies and to help inform the decision-making process. As highlighted in the recent ‘Foresight’ report on infectious disease control, emerging and re-emerging diseases require new solutions, and tackling them effectively may also involve investing in animal health outside the EU (see VR, May 6, 2006, vol 158, p 605). At the same time, there should be scope in a Community animal health policy for tackling endemic disease; one way of doing this might be to include measures to encourage wider uptake of veterinary farm health planning.

Not surprisingly, budgetary considerations feature in the Commission’s deliberations on its future animal health policy, and proposals for national or regional cost-sharing schemes, designed to encourage good practice, are prominent on the agenda for discussion. A shift in this direction seems inevitable, but it does need to be linked to real improvements in animal health. Developing an EU-wide animal health policy is daunting enough; deciding how to pay for it presents a challenge in itself.

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