The Parliament must not be bypassed on animal health

Scotland has had hard-won experience of the damage that animal disease outbreaks can do to the farming sector, rural communities and consumer confidence.

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Published in the Parliament Magazine on 15th October 2013.

Scotland has had hard-won experience of the damage that animal disease outbreaks can do to the farming sector, rural communities and consumer confidence.

The 1996 BSE crisis cost the UK £3.5 billion, or 0.5% of GDP, it took the lives of more than 200 people and led to a massive drop in consumer confidence. The damage that this disease caused took years to recover from. Foot and Mouth Disease, hitting us only five years later, resulted in £10-12 billion bill. That's a massive 1.2% of GDP. A second outbreak in the south of England in 2007 further exacerbated the damage already wrought on our agricultural and tourism industry.

Hard-won experience indeed. And certainly it is not just Scotland that has suffered through the spread of animal diseases. SARS, in East Asia in 2003, saw the death of around 800 people and had an estimated global impact of US$30 billion.

With the value of EU livestock farming output totalling €149 billion, and with around 120 million dogs and cats, and approximately 35 million pet birds in the EU, it is of fundamental importance that we have in place a comprehensible strategy that would allow us to promptly and efficiently deal with any major outbreak of animal disease. Animal diseases do not recognise borders nor schedules. They present a direct risk to animal and sometimes public health, and can have major economic or social effects. And despite recent advancements in our understanding of the behaviour and occurrence of outbreaks, it remains very difficult to predict their frequency or impact. For me it is clear, if you want to name one issue where the importance of having an EU-wide strategy is crystal clear, it is animal disease. In fact, in some instances it could be dangerous for this strategy not to exist.

Current EU legislation on animal health is made up of over 50 basic legal instruments, complemented by more than 400 specific and implementing acts. The EU's Animal Health Strategy 2007 - 2013 has already gone a long way towards unifying and subsequently coordinating the piecemeal strategies that are in place across the EU Member States, many of which were simply put in place as a result of disease outbreaks, rather than as any form of contingency planning. But clearly there is still a way to go. This year's proposal for a regulation on animal health will take us closer to where we need to be and I am glad for the opportunity to play my part in its development as Shadow Rapporteur for the Greens/European Free Alliance group. The proposed single framework would replace and encompass most of the present directives and regulations, aiming for simplification and greater consistency under common principles and rules.

However, I do have my concerns. There has been an increasing trend by the European Commission to relegate a number of major legislative points in a variety of dossiers to the status of delegated or implementing acts. This package is no different. Most seriously, this has been done for the characterisation of serious diseases. This is the framework which is used to decide which disease prevention measures should apply to which disease. Hardly a minor point.

Also concerning is the relegation of decisions regarding existing animal identification rules to delegated and implementing acts. Many in Scotland, myself included, have been waiting for an opportunity to review the way in which the current legislation on the electronic identification of sheep has been working but, as things stand, the European Parliament will have no say.

It is crucial that Europe is prepared and well-equipped to deal with animal disease outbreaks and this regulation will help us do this. However, this trend of removing MEPs from the decision-making process on points that it would be difficult to class as purely technical is deeply concerning. The European Parliament must not be bypassed.