The new Animal Health Law: a Toolbox for Powerful Solutions

The new Animal Health Law: a Toolbox for Powerful Solutions

21 April 2021
Few laws have been so poorly named, yet have been so long awaited. Europe’s new Animal Health Law, which applies from today, may come with a misleading name, but it opens up new and exciting possibilities for fixing many of the EU’s animal welfare problems.

What should have been called the ‘Veterinary Public Health Law’, which, although a little unwieldy,  at least would have been an accurate short title, primarily aims at preventing the transmission of zoonoses — transmissible diseases — from animals to other animals, and from animals to humans

In doing so, it does not necessarily improve the everyday health of billions of animals across the EU, whether we are referring to fish or fowl, or cows or cats. It does, however, aim to stop them from contracting particularly nasty viral diseases and passing these onto others. Also, if such a disease is found that is transmissible and that poses a risk to animals and humans, the law provides authorities with new processes and systems to manage and eradicate such diseases

As a law that reduced over 40 individual Union-level acts to one single, flexible, framework, we should be clear: the so-called ‘Animal Health Law’ is impressive, and welcomed. Due kudos must be given to the European Commission and to Member States and deputies in the European Parliament who improved the law further.

However, how can such a law help animal welfare?

Currently animal welfare law at EU level can only be made on three legal bases that Member States have conferred to the Union through the treaties. 

  1. The first is on the common organisation of agricultural and fisheries markets, essentially ensuring that standards on animal welfare are the same across the Union, so that producers are not disadvantaged against others in different Member States. 
  2. The second is on the functioning of the European internal marketproviding assurance to consumers that products are safe
  3. The third, and this is where the Animal Health Law comes in, is on veterinary public health where the preservation of human health is the ultimate objective

Several EU laws relating to the welfare of farm animals have been adopted under the first of these bases — laws relating to the protection of animals at the time of slaughter or to ban veal crates or phase out sow stalls. A few have been adopted under the third of these, notably those relating to the protection of animals used in scientific research. However, the third legal basis has been largely untapped and underused.

The Animal Health Law, however, is the answer to this. No, it may not provide for rules to improve animal welfare for the sake of animal welfare. However, does it provide us with a range of veterinary public health tools, tools that can now be used to improve veterinary public health and to improve animal welfare? Yes. Undoubtedly, and in particular for those animals that fall outside of the scope of those first two legal bases — notably for pets and wild animals.

Pedigree cat

Take the illegal pet trade, for example. From today, breeders and transporters of pets will need to register themselves across the EU. Transparency of supply is one of the key pillars of pet traceability, and offers us a real opportunity to shine a light on puppy farms and kitchen cat breeders who keep animals purely for the sake of commercial gain. If you’re the owner of a puppy farm in eastern Europe breeding dogs for sale in the west, and you’re not registered, you’re now breaking the law. 

As of today, the European Commission has new powers to mandate common minimum standards for the identification and registration of individual cats and dogs, and to facilitate information exchange between registration databases between Member States. It may sound technical, but such a move would mark the single biggest measure that can be taken to combat the abuse of the pet passport system, and the growing illegal trade in these animals.

Another power in the law is particularly relevant today, as to look almost prescient. Under Article 259, the Commission could now suspend or stop mink farming across the EU due to ongoing concerns over the transmission of Sars-Cov-2 variants (the virus that causes Covid-19) in mink farms across the EU. Only last week, a mink farm in Latvia was found to have infected animals after a member of staff at the farm contracted the disease. What better way to protect veterinary public health, and to improve animal welfare?

These are just a few examples, amongst many opportunities for similar actions across many animal groups.

Of course, as one of the ‘five domains’ of animal welfare, animal health in and of itself — the actual health of individual animals — still needs to be safeguarded. However, this task, whether through improving husbandry and housing systems to negate the threat of disease emergence, or whether through reducing the use of antimicrobials to treat routine infections, will have to come through the forthcoming revision of the animal welfare acquis in the coming years. However, we should still raise a collective cheer for the new ‘Animal Health Law’ today. It offers us powerful solutions to several ongoing problems. Now it simply needs to be used to its full potential.

Read more on the Animal Health law on the European Commission's website.