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PEOPLE don't usually take much notice of European legislation until it's too late, at which point – particularly during the political party conference season – they tend to rail against bureaucratic diktats from Brussels. It is better to take an interest before the legislation is adopted, when there might still be an opportunity to influence the outcome. The European Commission is currently in the process of reviewing a whole raft of legislation relating to animal health and, as the UK's chief veterinary officers pointed out during a debate at the BVA Congress last month, for anyone concerned about this subject the time to take an interest is now.
The first review concerns a new EU Animal Health Law. This has been going on for some time now and is expected to come to fruition next year. The new law is being developed under the Animal Health Strategy agreed by the EU in 2007 and will set the framework for activities relating to animal health and welfare for years to come. With its motto ‘Prevention is better than cure’, the EU's Animal Health Strategy puts a greater focus on precautionary measures including disease surveillance, biosecurity and research in reducing the incidence of animal diseases and minimising the impact of disease outbreaks when they occur. It also focuses on issues linked to animal health, such as public health, food safety, sustainable development and animal welfare. One of the aims of the strategy is to establish a clearer regulatory structure for animal health across the EU, and the Animal Health Law is being developed with a view to achieving this. Details are awaited but, given that the existing legislation covers areas such as intracommunity trade, imports, disease control, animal nutrition and animal welfare, the impact could clearly be significant.
The new Animal Health Law must integrate with European food law and with the EU system of official controls. The official control system is also being reviewed to establish a harmonised framework for control activities performed by member states to ensure that food law rules are properly implemented across the EU. Vets perform a number of important official functions in relation to food safety and animal health and it would seem important to ensure that these are maintained. As discussed in an article on pp 384–385 of this issue of Veterinary Record, there would also seem to be scope to increase their involvement in food assurance and public health.
Also being developed is a proposal on how to ensure that EU financial resources are used to best effect with regard to animal disease outbreaks and how an EU framework for responsibility and cost sharing might contribute to the detection and eradication of animal diseases. A feasibility study undertaken for the Commission was published earlier this year and recommended, among other things, that compensation for member states for epidemic diseases of livestock should become more risk-based. On responsibility and cost sharing, it pointed out that arrangements for sharing responsibilities need to be established before decisions on cost sharing can be properly debated and defined but made a number of suggestions as to how to proceed.
Veterinary medicines legislation is also under review, with the European Commission having carried out a consultation on the subject in 2010 and expected to make proposals for revising the relevant Directive in 2012. The review has been prompted by concerns that the existing legislation is restricting the availability of new products and last year's consultation covered a range of issues including product authorisation, medicines distribution channels, the prescribing cascade and pharmacovigilance. Worryingly, although the aim of the exercise is to make more products available for use in animals, the consultation also raised the possibility that, in the case of antimicrobials considered critical for human medicine, availability might be restricted. Antimicrobial resistance is attracting a great deal of attention at present. Effective antimicrobials are needed to safeguard both animal and human health and, in the current political climate, care must be taken to ensure that any decisions are evidence-based and that animal health and welfare is not compromised as a result of overzealous legislation.
All in all there is a lot of relevant legislative activity going on at the moment, with a number of projects expected to come to fruition next year. The difficulty is that, while it is possible to track progress on the European Commission's website (see, for example, http://ec.europa.eu/food/animal/diseases/strategy/pillars/framework_en.htm), until the proposals start to emerge, it is difficult to be sure what the legislation will contain. European legislation may not be the most riveting of topics, but it will be important to keep an eye on developments in the months ahead.