The EU Commission on Wednesday September 19 unveiled wide-ranging proposals to reduce to “a negligible level” the serious threats which animal diseases, such as bird flu, pose to human health and the rural economy.
With its mantra “prevention is better than cure,” the strategy paper sets out a raft of suggested short-and long-term measures including a rapid response network, streamlined and harmonised animal health laws and, eventually, an electronic ID system for cattle.
“Animal health has implications for human health, food safety, economic prosperity and ethical values,” EU Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou said in a statement. “Our goal is to reduce the threats that certain diseases pose, and to ensure that any animal health measure taken over the next six-years offers maximum benefit for EU citizens,” he added.
The EU’s executive arm expects the European Parliament and the 27 EU member states to respond to its proposals by the end of the year. “We hope to decrease the later costs that we may have to incur in tackling the disease outbreaks,” said Commission spokesman Philip Tod. New legislation on the basis of the proposals is not expected until 2009, he added.
The initiative was unveiled as the growing foot and mouth disease problem in England illustrates the threat to livestock and livelihoods of animal disease. The outbreaks raised the spectre of a repeat of the 2001 foot and mouth crisis, in which up to 10 million animals were culled and which cost the national economy about eight billion pounds (11.7 billion euros, 16.0 billion dollars).
The current bird flu outbreak in southern China is an example of the threats to human life too. The H5N1 bird flu strain has killed 200 people and ravaged poultry flocks worldwide since 2003, according to the World Health Organisation.
As the European Commission paper states, “the EU is the biggest food importer in the world,” and the strategy review is aimed at third countries as well as EU members. “The challenge is to improve border bio-security without severely disrupting cross-border movement of people and agricultural goods,” it states. One idea here is for veterinarians to work more closely with customs officials at border inspection posts.
Conceding that some developing countries would have difficulty complying with EU standards the Commission also calls for the provision of technical assistance to fight exotic diseases at source. “The aim is to put greater focus on precautionary measures, disease surveillance, controls and research, in order to reduce the incidence of animal disease and minimise the impact of outbreaks when they occur,” according to the Commission.
The plan also highlights the need for an integrated approach in animal health policy-making, inter-linking it with other community policies. And the initiative covers animal welfare as well as the risks from animal disease and extends to pets, wild animals and zoos.