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Europe's vision on animal health

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THINGS seem to move slowly in Europe, and decisions made in Brussels and Strasbourg can seem far removed from the realities of practice. Ultimately, however, those decisions can be much more important than decisions made in Westminster or the devolved administrations in the uk, many of which are largely concerned with implementing European legislation on a national basis. This is particularly true in the field of animal health, both for historical reasons because of the importance of agriculture in the eu, and because of the need for disease control measures to be coordinated. Very often, decisions made in Europe don't make the headlines in the uk, at least not immediately, although they do have a knack of making their presence felt later.

A resolution passed by the European Parliament last week1 is a case in point. It concerns the European Commission's proposals for a new Animal Health Strategy for the eu2, which were adopted by the Commission last September and are currently wending their way through the European legislative process.

The proposed strategy sets out high-level aims and objectives to guide the development of animal health policy in the period up to 2013. It covers the health of all animals in the eu kept for food, farming, research, sport, companionship, entertainment and in zoos, as well as wild animals where there is a risk of them transmitting disease to other animals or to humans. It also deals with the health of animals transported to, from and within the eu. Issues considered include the prevention and control of infectious diseases, food safety and public health, veterinary research and surveillance, and border controls and trade in animals and their products. As such, it will be fundamental to veterinary activity in the eu and, once adopted, will shape national policies for years to come.

With its motto ‘Prevention is better than cure,’ the European strategy is in many respects similar to the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy (ahws) which is currently being implemented in the uk. It places great emphasis on biosecurity, for example, as well as on monitoring and surveillance. Like the ahws, it advocates responsibility and cost sharing as a means of safeguarding animal health more effectively, albeit that, as in the uk, a framework for achieving this has still to be determined. It places more emphasis on research than the ahws, which is welcome. The ahws will have to be dovetailed into the eu strategy at some stage, so the European Parliament's resolution is relevant not just in its own right but also in pointing to aspects of the uk strategy that would benefit from more attention.

The resolution is generally supportive of the European strategy, although it is critical of some aspects, particularly with regard to future funding. It includes numerous recommendations, some of which are clearly relevant to the current situation in the uk.

For example, it emphasises the importance of the role to be played by the veterinary profession, which, it says, should be at the forefront of the development and delivery of specialised and proactive services such as animal health planning. It also expresses concerns about veterinary cover in certain rural areas.

It stresses the importance of veterinary surveillance in preventing disease crises and, in this context, calls on the Commission to examine the possible introduction of a system of farm audits for farms that are not regularly visited by veterinary professionals.

With regard to border controls, the European Parliament believes that veterinary and sanitary checks at eu borders should not be restricted simply to checking documents, but should also make it possible to ascertain whether animals have been reared in accordance with animal welfare standards laid down in eu legislation. It also argues that, in view of the disease risks, controls should be particularly rigorous, with a view to preventing the illegal importation of, or trafficking in, animals and animal products.

On controlling infectious disease outbreaks, the Parliament supports action to increase the use of emergency vaccination in disease eradication operations, arguing that ‘vaccination is better than unnecessary culling’. Controversially, perhaps, given that more might be achieved through public education, it calls for a ban on consumer labelling of products derived from vaccinated animals to ensure their indiscriminate circulation.

The resolution is not solely concerned with food animals. It points out that the animal health strategy, with its preventive approach, should include measures both to monitor pets and stray animals and to prevent the spread of zoonotic diseases and animal health problems. It also urges the Commission to assess the possible economic and social consequences of the spread of zoonotic diseases and the mobility of people and their pets.

The eu Animal Health Strategy was due to apply from 2007 to 2013. As the Parliament points out, it is running behind time and the basic legislation cannot be in place until 2010 at the earliest. The next step will be for the Commission to put forward an action plan to be taken forward later this summer. The wheels may seem to turn slowly, but it will be important to keep an eye on developments as the legislation progresses.

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