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MENTION of new EU animal health legislation is unlikely to set many pulses racing, particularly in the UK, where attention is so firmly focused on the Government's plans for an in or out referendum. Nevertheless, news that the European Parliament, Commission and Council have reached political agreement on a new animal health law (see p 609 of this issue) is significant, not least because, irrespective of the outcome of the referendum, it will affect animal health activity, including veterinary activity, for years to come.

The legislation, which is expected to be adopted in 2016, has had a long gestation. It aims to provide a framework for implementing the EU's Animal Health Strategy, which was agreed by EU member states in 2007. This had been proposed in 2004, partly in response to the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak of 2001. As the then European Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner, Markos Kyprianou, remarked at the time, ‘The devastating social and economic consequences of diseases like foot-and-mouth disease or avian influenza demonstrate the importance of a strong and effective animal health policy at EU level’ (VR, May 27, 2006, vol 158, p 709). With its motto ‘Prevention is better than cure’, the EU Animal Health Strategy aimed to provide such a policy by putting greater emphasis on activities such as disease surveillance, biosecurity and research in reducing the incidence of animal diseases and minimising the impact of disease outbreaks. It also focuses on issues linked to animal health, such as food safety, sustainable development and animal welfare.1

Another aim of the strategy agreed in 2007 was to establish a clearer regulatory structure for animal health across the EU. Animal health has been subject to the attention of European legislators ever since the EU was founded, mainly because of the importance attached to agriculture and recognition of the need to be able to trade animals and their products safely in the single market while also protecting consumers. However, over the years, the rules have proliferated, to the extent that there are currently more than 40 EU Directives and Regulations governing activity in the animal health field alone. The new animal health law, proposals for which were adopted by the European Commission in 2013 (VR, May 18, 2013, vol 172, p 513), will replace these with a single piece of legislation.

Recognising that animal disease outbreaks can harm people as well as animals, while also damaging the economy and trade, the new legislation aims to increase the focus on disease prevention and surveillance. It aims to clarify responsibilities for farmers, vets and others dealing with animals, as well as to provide flexibility to adjust rules to local or changing circumstances. It also includes a list of animal diseases for EU intervention (which may be amended in the future), and assigns different sets of measures to them, based on their characteristics and significance. It aims to provide veterinary authorities with a clear legal basis and better tools to fight diseases, particularly in relation to surveillance and eradication.

The legislation does not include rules on animal welfare, although it recognises that animal health and welfare are linked and requires that welfare is taken into account when considering the impact of diseases and the measures taken to control them. It will not make farm animal health visits compulsory but instead aims to provide for such visits by making them complementary to other systems of disease surveillance and control, and by encouraging best practice in areas such as biosecurity. It does not specify the EU's financial contribution to measures relating to animal health; rather, it establishes key principles, objectives and priorities, clarifies responsibilities and establishes a framework within which everyone will be expected to work.

The new animal health law may have been a long time coming but it can be expected to provide the basis for disease prevention and control in Europe well into the future. This and other legislation being developed in Europe (such as new rules on veterinary medicines) will continue to be relevant in the UK whatever the outcome of the planned referendum. Looking ahead, the UK will presumably want to continue to trade with the rest of Europe, which will involve working to the same rules and regulations. Importantly, disease is not just a national issue, as pathogens tend not to respect borders, and disease prevention and control efforts must continue to be coordinated on an international basis. At a time when funding in the UK for disease surveillance and related research has already been reduced, and could yet be reduced further, European regulations could help to ensure that these vital activities continue to be maintained at an appropriate level.

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