Animal Health in Europe
Animal health is a major concern not just for animal keepers, but for the general public across the UK and Europe. It has important links to public health, animal welfare and food safety. When things go wrong, they can have devastating effects: for example, both the BSE crisis of the late 1990s and the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 2001 caused economic losses of billions of pounds.
At an EU level, common rules and standards for animal health are important in order to allow the single market to operate. A harmonised approach is essential if animals are to be moved and traded freely among the EU countries without harming animal and public health in any of them. For this reason, the EU and its predecessors began to adopt legislation on animal health soon after its formation, in 1964, and has continued to do so ever since.
On the whole, this legislation is considered to work well. It is, however, highly complex. Much of the legislation was adopted in a piecemeal fashion to respond to the needs of the moment. Some of it dates back fifty years and may now be outdated. For these reasons, the EU is currently developing a new Regulation on Animal Health.
European Union Animal Health Regulation
The proposed Regulation aims to establish a single, simplified regulatory framework that sets out the objectives, scope and principles of regulatory intervention based on good governance and compliance with international standards – for example, those of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). This will enable quick reaction in case of emerging diseases; ensure consistency across the field of animal health; reduce as far as possible the impact of animal diseases on animal and public health, animal welfare, the economy and society; and ensure the smooth functioning of the internal market in animals and animal products. While previous European regulation on animal health has been focused on responding to disease outbreaks when they occur, the new Regulation aims to emphasise prevention rather than cure.
The EU Animal Health Regulation forms part of a package of proposals presented by the European Commission at the same time with the aim of simplifying and strengthening health and safety standards for the whole agri-food chain. It introduces a set of harmonised rules to prevent, eliminate or reduce health risks to humans, animals and plants which may arise along the whole of the agri-food chain.
The other elements of the package are:
- a new regulation on plant health
- a regulation on Official Controls performed to check compliance with the other aspects of the regime, replacing Regulation 882/2004
- a regulation governing the EU’s expenditure in support of the whole package.
The expenditure regulation was agreed in late 2013 and entered force in July 2014. Negotiations on the other proposals are still ongoing and are likely to continue through 2015-16. Work also began on a fifth regulation in the Smarter Rules for Safer Food package, on plant reproductive material (seeds and bulbs). However, this proposal was withdrawn by the European Commission in December 2014, before it reached technical negotiations.
Scope of the Regulation
The Regulation will cover:
- kept and wild animals;
- germinal products;
- products of animal origin;
- animal by-products and derived products;
- facilities, means of transport, equipment and all other paths of infection and material involved or potentially involved in the spread of transmissible animal diseases; and
- transmissible diseases including zoonotic diseases
Disease listing and categorisation
Some of the rules provided in the Regulation (for example, those on the responsibilities of operators, veterinarians and the authorities) apply generally, but most are relevant only for ‘listed diseases’ or a subset of these diseases. With the new Regulation, the Commission intends for the first time to list and categorise diseases on a scientific basis, allowing for better prioritisation of resources. The Regulation provides for the Commission to draw up a list of diseases that meet a variety of criteria indicating that they are of significance for the EU. From that list, the Commission, in collaboration with experts in Member States, will then place diseases in one or more of five categories determining what control measures are applicable. This should allow for more effective and scientific prioritisation of diseases so that the resources of the EU and the Member States can be better targeted. The final text proposes an Annex, containing a list of diseases, in addition to five diseases stipulated in the main text (foot and mouth disease, classical swine fever, African swine fever, high-path avian influenza, and African horse sickness). This list of diseases will be reviewed in the next two years (and/or whenever new scientific evidence comes to light) and amended subject to Member State agreement. This proposal won’t impact on our ability to react quickly to new or emerging diseases for which there are separate provisions.
The Animal Health Regulation is intended as a framework regulation. Its articles set fundamental principles for animal health and lay down the basic ground rules. The detailed rules underlying these principles will be decided later, mostly through ‘tertiary legislation’. Under the Lisbon Treaty, the Commission may adopt delegated and implementing acts to supplement and amend the rules laid down in the base Regulation. This makes the Regulation more flexible and responsive to changing disease situations. At the same time, it does reduce the degree of control wielded by the Member States and the European Parliament. Throughout negotiations on the base text, we have sought to ensure that empowerments to adopt tertiary legislation are granted only where there is a clear need for flexibility. We’ve received assurance from the Commission that Member States will be consulted adequately when drawing up this legislation, between 2016 and 2019.
This Regulation is mainly a consolidating and simplifying piece of legislation and, with a few exceptions, direct economic impact is likely to be limited. Many of the impacts of the Regulation are hard to predict, as they will depend on the listing and categorisation of diseases and the tertiary legislation to be adopted. This reinforces the need for adequate oversight of the process of disease listing and the adoption of tertiary legislation.
Some reduction in administrative burden is expected from the reduction in volume of legislation at both European and national level and from greater use of electronic documentation for animal movements. Animal diseases will also be listed and categorised on a scientific and evidential basis for the first time. This should allow the EU and its Member States to prioritise the allocation of their resources in a more effective way. The use of compartmentalisation (that is, allowing some biosecure farms to be considered safe to trade even during a disease outbreak), which is currently allowed only for avian disease, could be extended. This could mean fewer trade restrictions. Perhaps the most tangible impacts for operators will centre on new requirements for animal health visits and operator responsibilities and knowledge.
Operator responsibilities and knowledge
The proposal lays down for the first time the various responsibilities of operators, vets and the authorities in a clear way and requires operators to implement good biosecurity standards as appropriate for the type of operation. It also requires all operators to have a basic knowledge of the principles of animal health, to an extent appropriate to the type of animal keeping they engage in. We recognise the existing expertise of animal keepers built up over generations and expect that most would already possess such knowledge. Operators who felt the need to improve their levels of knowledge could do so through formal education, professional training or various sectoral schemes. Authorities in the UK and across Europe would encourage this but not organise or pay for it.
Animal Health visits
The proposal introduces a requirement for all operators to have their establishments visited by a veterinarian at a frequency commensurate with the risk posed. These visits would not be another kind of official control, but would be a private arrangement between animal keepers and their chosen vets. These visits could:
- build relationships and strengthen communication;
- allow vets to provide advice on biosecurity and help for example with farm health planning;
provide some opportunity for vets to look at the condition of animals on the establishment and check for any obvious signs of disease; and,
- potentially, play some part in the authorities’ surveillance strategy. This would require extensive consideration of the requirements of the visits and of how data could be shared between keepers, vets and the authorities.
Establishments which are already regularly visited by vets would not have to arrange for additional visits. Account is also taken in the Regulation of the role of farm assurance schemes such as the Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) Assurance Scheme. When we come to implement the Regulation, we will look to work closely with the different industry sectors, the veterinary profession and assurance schemes to make sure that the visits are useful, produce real improvements for animal health and don’t duplicate existing visits or impose unnecessary burden on farmers.
Smarter Rules for Safer Food package
Alongside the Animal Health Regulation, the Commission also proposed a revised legislative framework for plant health. Like the Animal Health proposals, these regulations will consolidate a complex set of legislative acts, some of which have not been reviewed since the 1970s. A similar proposal for a framework on plant reproductive materials (seeds and bulbs), also part of the Package, was withdrawn by the Commission before reaching technical negotiation. A new Regulation on Official Controls (a revision of Regulation 882/2004) performed to verify compliance with these sector-specific pieces of legislation as well as with the law on food and feed has also been proposed. Finally, the EU has also adopted a new Regulation on the financing that the EU provides in support of policies in these fields. These five Regulations make up the Smarter Rules for Safer Food package. We hope that bringing these Regulations forward together will provide opportunities for synergies and ensure a simplified and streamlined control system across the agri-food chain.
The Animal Health Regulation does not introduce charging for animal health services
The Animal Health Regulation does not contain any provisions on charging or the financing of official controls and other official activities. The draft regulation on Official Controls did, however, contain a proposal to require Member States to recover the full costs of official controls across the agri-food chain. A decision was reached by the Council of the European Union in October 2015 to support maintaining the current rules. Negotiations will now begin between the Council, the Commission and the European Parliament and a final outcome is not expected until summer 2016.