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Keeping an eye on the law

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DEVELOPMENT of new legislation, particularly European legislation, is painfully slow, but even European legislators seem to get there in the end. This appears to be the case with the new Animal Health Law, where the legislative process has been grinding on for several years now but is finally nearing completion. In fact, the new rules are so close to being agreed that Defra is starting to think about how they might be applied in the UK. In a document published on the Government's website last week, Defra briefly outlines the scope of this legislation and explains that it will shortly be seeking views on how best to implement it at a national level.1

The new legislation forms part of a wider legislative package aimed at strengthening the agri-food chain in Europe by introducing what the European Commission describes as ‘smarter rules for safer food’. Although during most of its development it has been referred to as the Animal Health Law, its name was changed last year to the Regulation on Transmissible Diseases, which, while not the snappiest of titles, hints at its significance and gives a clearer indication of what it is actually about. An underlying aim is to provide the legal framework for the EU Animal Health Strategy which was agreed across Europe back in 2007. This strategy had initially been prompted by concern to find a better way of doing things following the experiences of, for example, BSE in the 1990s and foot-and-mouth disease in 2001.

Like the Animal Health Strategy itself, the new Regulation will be based on the principle that prevention is better than cure. Among other things, it aims to allow for better early detection of animal diseases and diseases transmissible to people, including emerging diseases linked to climate change. It aims to allow greater use of new technologies for activities such as disease surveillance, and for the identification and registration of animals. It also aims to clarify responsibilities for farmers, vets and others dealing with animals, and to allow more flexibility to adjust rules to local circumstances.

Developing the new Regulation has been no small task, and has involved streamlining into a single piece of legislation a multitude of separate rules that has evolved since the EU was founded. The idea is that simpler, clearer rules should free up time, enabling authorities and those who have to follow the rules to focus on preventing and eradicating disease. In the meantime, the Regulation is expected to integrate with other elements of the ‘smarter rules for safer food’ package, which have been developed in parallel.

Most notable among these is Official Controls legislation, which is intended to ensure that food safety standards are effectively enforced, along with rules on animal health and welfare. A key element of this legislation is that controls should be carried out regularly and at an appropriate frequency on the basis of risk, at all stages of the food chain. It will also deal with matters such as who should be responsible for controls, the extent to which activities can be delegated and how controls should be paid for.

These are not minor considerations and the new rules could potentially have an impact on a whole range of activities, including, for example, levels of inspection at border posts, veterinary involvement on farms and the level of veterinary involvement in ensuring that standards are maintained in abattoirs. Regarding the last of these, the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe has expressed concern that a proposal in the legislation to allow the delegation of preslaughter inspection of animals to ‘official auxiliaries’ could jeopardise the protection currently afforded to animals and consumers (VR, September 26, 2015, vol 177, p 298).

One thing that seems certain is that, having spent a decade developing the legislation, the European Commission is not going to want to change it again soon, so it can be expected to remain in place for many years to come. It also seems likely that the measures will continue to be applied in the UK irrespective of the outcome of the Government's planned referendum on EU membership. Even if the UK votes to leave, it will presumably still want to trade with the rest of Europe, in which case it will have to abide by the same rules. On top of that, it makes sense to try to prevent and control disease and safeguard the food chain on a coordinated, international basis: disease does not respect national borders, as illustrated in recent years by the emergence and spread in Europe of bluetongue and Schmallenberg virus. The complexity of modern food supply chains also demands an international approach, as illustrated by the horsemeat scandal in 2013. It is just such incidents and disease outbreaks that the new legislation aims to prevent.

Given the breadth and likely impact of the legislation, the document produced by Defra last week is surprisingly short on detail. However, it does draw attention to the fact that things are about to happen and outlines a timetable for change. It also indicates that it is looking to implement the rules in a way that is ‘simple, affordable and effective’. Thinking about the details and consequences of new legislation is not everyone's idea of a good time, but it will be important to keep an eye on developments in the months to come.

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