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More in than out on animal health

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GOVERNMENT documents are not normally top of everyone's reading list, particularly if they have the words ‘European Union’ in the title. Nevertheless, a report called ‘Review of the Balance of Competences between the United Kingdom and the European Union: Animal Health and Welfare and Food Safety Report’, which was published by the Government last month,1 is well worth reading, both because of its subject matter and in the context of the ongoing ‘in or out’ debate about EU membership which, according to some media commentators at least, is currently preoccupying the British public to an even greater extent than the weather.

The report summarises the outcome, so far as animal health and welfare and food safety are concerned, of a consultation launched by Defra and the Food Standards Agency last November to clarify the extent to which laws made in Brussels determine what happens in the UK and how far this is desirable. It forms part of a much wider review, being coordinated by the Foreign Office, to assess what the EU does and how it affects the UK – essentially, an audit of the pros and cons of EU membership (VR, December 8, 2012, vol 171, p 576). This is not a small-scale exercise, and a total of 32 such reports, covering activities across a whole range of areas, are planned. However, given the importance of animal health and welfare and food safety controls in the single European market, it is perhaps appropriate that a report on this subject should be among the first to be published.

Surprisingly, given the vehement reaction that each new ‘bureaucratic diktat’ from Brussels tends to provoke among media commentators and certain backbench MPs, the views of the 60 or so organisations that responded to the consultation seem, on balance, to be remarkably positive. Among the points made, for example, is that common standards for animal health, welfare and food have ensured free movement of goods and promoted trade within the EU, while ensuring that consumers and animal health are protected when disease or food safety threats develop. It is suggested that internal market rules helped the UK in the wake of the BSE crisis, and that the detection of Schmallenberg virus and the rapid development of tests for it provides a good example of how a Europe-wide approach to disease surveillance is of value. A number of organisations argued that a harmonised approach to animal health and food law is essential in providing appropriate protection for animals and people across the EU; respondents also pointed out that EU emergency veterinary funds could help facilitate swift and decisive action in response to animal disease outbreaks.

On animal welfare, a number of organisations suggested that the UK had taken a lead in helping to raise animal welfare standards across the EU and should continue to do so. Others, however, mainly representing industry interests, expressed concern that in some instances this had put the UK at a competitive disadvantage, giving the EU pigs and laying hens directives as examples.

This is not to say that everything is perfect or that there are not areas where things can be improved. Regarding animal health controls, a number of respondents called for more flexibility, so that member states could take account of significant local and regional differences in disease pressures, species densities and husbandry practices, and apply control measures appropriately. Constraints on the way different TB tests can be applied and changes to the pet travel rules are cited as examples of where a more flexible approach would be helpful. Concern was expressed, too, that ‘smart’ regulation principles are not always applied effectively and, although there was general agreement that animal health, welfare and food law should be risk-based, there was concern that, in practice, risk-based decisions could be unduly prescriptive and risk averse, leading to disproportionate legislation. There was also concern that the precautionary principle could get in the way of a consistently applied risk-based approach.

These concerns are not unfounded and are particularly pertinent given that the EU is currently in the process of updating animal health law, including rules on veterinary medicines. This process clearly provides an opportunity to make improvements but, if not done properly and with careful consideration, could just as easily make things worse.

It is not enough to make laws; they also need to be properly implemented and enforced and, as the BVA pointed out in its submission to the consultation, poor implementation and enforcement should not be confused with poor law making (VR, March 30, 2013, vol 172, p 322). Interestingly, while it is often suggested that the UK implements and enforces European laws more strictly than other member states, the report suggests that evidence on this was ‘mixed’, with some respondents arguing that the UK ‘gold-plates’ EU legislation and others suggesting that there is little evidence to show that the UK is systematically stricter than other member states.

Overall, the report seems to suggest that, despite some concerns, and despite suggesting several areas for improvement, most respondents felt that the ‘balance of competences’ between the UK and the EU in the field of animal health, animal welfare and food safety is about right. In that sense, in the context of the ongoing debate about the terms of the UK's EU membership, the balance of the report seems more in favour of staying in than getting out. It will be interesting to see whether that view is reflected in the fields covered by the other 31 reports in the series.

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