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Caught in the middle

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THERE can have been few consultations more important for the future of animal health and welfare in the uk than the one currently being conducted by the Government on responsibility and cost sharing. defra issued a consultation document on the subject last December,with the Secretary of State already having made clear that the current arrangements for safeguarding animal health were ‘unsustainable’ and that he wanted to reform the system so that ‘farmers — those who benefit more than anyone else from well managed risk — are central to the decision-making process and contribute to the costs of those decisions in a fair way’. The Government is keen to press ahead, and wants to achieve a new relationship with the industry which delivers ‘a lasting and continuous improvement in the health and welfare of kept animals whilst protecting the general public, the economy and the environment from the effects of animal disease’ (see VR, December 15, 2007, vol 161, pp 797, 798). It has asked for comments on its consultation document by April 15. The bva is currently developing its response, but had a chance to present its ideas at a seminar organised by defra in London last week at which farmers' and other interested groups were also represented.

Outlining the Association's initial thoughts, the bva President, Mr Nick Blayney, argued that the important thing at this stage was to identify the key issues and that the first thing to consider was what was in the public interest — not the interests of the various players, whether the farming industry, the food supply chain or, indeed, the veterinary profession. Factors to consider included how animal disease impacted on human health, food security, the environment and the economy, as well as on animal health and welfare itself.

Both the uk Animal Health and Welfare Strategy and the new eu Animal Health Strategy, with their emphasis on disease prevention and working in partnership, provided opportunities for a new approach but, Mr Blayney emphasised, this could not be an exercise in government cost-cutting. It was vital that the Government maintained its overall commitment to animal health and welfare.

Citing efforts to control salmonella in eggs, eradication of Aujeszky's disease in pigs in Northern Ireland and various farm health planning initiatives as examples of how industry and government could work together successfully, Mr Blayney argued that veterinary surgeons could bring a unique perspective to the debate. He outlined a vision for the future in which there was a genuine partnership between industry and government, with shared decision making, which recognised that ‘If industry pays, it must have a say’. There would also be greater independence of government decision making from day-to-day politics, with an approach that focused on the best available scientific evidence. There would be closer integration between animal health and welfare policy and delivery in the field, with improved cooperation among everyone involved.

The bva envisaged that the Government and the eu would enhance biosecurity at borders, to reduce the risk of exotic disease outbreaks, and that Great Britain would be considered as a single epidemiological unit, with decision making that encouraged regional flexibility. Meanwhile, cost sharing arrangements would provide industry with an incentive for action by rewarding those who achieved good animal health and welfare outcomes. This would be done by reducing the risk of disease by good on-farm biosecurity, enhanced disease surveillance, husbandry that minimised unnecessary animal movements, and better integration at farm level. Farm health planning could be used as a tool to reduce the risk of disease on farms but, Mr Blayney emphasised, any reward must be based on actual outcomes. Farm health planning needed to be active, with farmers, in consultation with their professional advisers, planning and auditing their progress.

With regard to exotic diseases, Mr Blayney drew attention to the difficulties of determining who might be charged and at what rate, and where in the supply chain the costs should fall. He argued that uk producers should not be disadvantaged by the arrangements, and that any levy that might be introduced should also apply to imported foods. Noting that not all animal keepers were part of a livestock production industry, but that their animals could still represent a biosecurity risk, he wondered whether it might be time to contemplate licensing animal keepers. He emphasised the importance of research on animal health and welfare, arguing that this was clearly in the public interest and should continue to be supported by government.

The bva's view was not the only one expressed at the seminar. The nfu, for example, firmly rejected the Government's plans, arguing that ‘with confidence in the Government's good intentions at as low an ebb as livestock farming incomes, this is the worst possible time to be talking about making farmers pay for what most of them would regard as the Government's responsibility’. For its part, the Government continues to argue that there will never be a good time to talk about cost and responsibility sharing and that there is a need to move forward. defra is planning a number of regional workshops in different parts of England over the next few weeks, so the arguments seem set to continue for some time yet. Details of the workshops are available on defra's website at www.defra.gov.uk/news/latest/2008/farm-0602.htm. In the meantime, it is right that the veterinary profession should be looking at the issues in terms of the public interest and what is best for animal health and welfare. It has been caught the middle of this debate for too long.

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