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Detail and the law

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THE development of European legislation is not the most riveting of topics, which might be one of the reasons why, rather than discussing this, UK politicians and the media devote their energy to debating whether or not to legislate for an ‘in or out’ referendum instead (although, to be fair, the debate in the UK seems to have temporarily shifted away from EU membership and is focusing more on the benefits or otherwise of an independent Scotland). Nevertheless, European legislation is important, particularly in the field of animal health, and will continue to be so long after the issue of Britain's EU membership is decided (if, indeed, it ever is). This is especially true at the moment because the EU is currently in the process of developing a new animal health law, which will affect activity in this field for years to come.

Last May, the European Commission put forward proposals for the new law, which aims both to consolidate the plethora of legislation that already exists on animal health and to implement the EU's animal health strategy, which was agreed back in 2007 (VR, May 18, 2013, vol 172, p 513). The Commission's proposals are now being considered by the European Parliament, which is currently in the process of making amendments. This nitty-gritty phase of the EU legislative process can be hard to follow; however, details are important and there is a need to keep an eye on what is happening.

European legislators have always been interested in animal health, mainly because of the emphasis placed on agriculture when the EU was founded, along with recognition of the need to be able to trade animals and animal products safely in the single market. There are currently more than 40 EU directives and regulations governing activity in the field of animal health, and, under the Commission's proposals, these are to be replaced with a single piece of legislation. Based, like the animal health strategy, on the principle that prevention is better than cure, the new legislation is also expected to integrate with new legislation on official controls along the food chain and, as such, will cover a raft of activities, including veterinary activities, aimed at protecting both animal and human health.

Among the many promises made for the new rules are that they will free up time, enabling authorities and those having to follow the rules to focus on the key priorities of preventing and eradicating disease, and that they will clarify responsibilities for farmers, vets and others dealing with animals. It is suggested that they will allow greater use of new technologies for animal health activities such as disease surveillance and the identification and registration of animals, and lead to better early detection and control of animal diseases. There will also be more flexibility to adjust rules to local circumstances.

The draft legislation was adopted by the European Parliament's Agriculture and Rural Development Committee last month, which nevertheless made a number of amendments. Among other things, the MEPs on the committee are pressing for greater emphasis on prevention, arguing that, to boost good animal husbandry and proper use of veterinary medicines, member states should pay particular attention to antimicrobial resistance and provide better access to professional training in this area when designing disease control plans. They believe that the European Commission should be empowered to adopt urgent measures to tackle diseases that have a major impact on animal and public health but, at the same time, say that both the European Parliament and the European Council must have proper scrutiny over the measures adopted and the power to repeal them if necessary. They are also calling for more control over stray dogs.

As the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe pointed out this week (see p 209 of this issue), while some of the many amendments proposed by the committee – such as those advocating a One Health approach to disease prevention and those emphasising the importance of regular farm animal health visits – may be helpful, others are less so, and it will be important to keep a close watch on developments as the legislation continues its progress through the European Parliament.

Such fundamental overhauls of animal health legislation are few and far between and, while they undoubtedly provide opportunities for improvement, there is also scope, if only through the law of unintended consequences, for things to go wrong, which is one of the reasons why the details are so important. Once legislation is adopted, it also has to be implemented and enforced, and, as experience has shown, this can cause problems in its own right. Politicians might like to focus on the ‘bigger issues’, and it is clearly important that they do. However, they also need to keep a firm grasp on the detail of what is happening in the meantime.

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