Other available languages: none
European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection
A comprehensive EU approach to combating FMD
Temporary Committee on Food and Mouth Disease of the European Parliament
Brussels, 12 September 2002
I am very pleased to update you on the Commission's policy in relation to foot and mouth disease. I have followed your Committee's work very closely. Your forthcoming report and the Commission response will provide the opportunity for a full discussion of the lessons to be learned from the outbreak of FMD last year.
However, I want to emphasise very strongly that the Commission has already taken very close note of the work undertaken by your committee. I have received from my officials very detailed accounts of this work. Without in any way seeking to pre-empt the final content of your report, I am confident that you will find that the views in Parliament are already strongly reflected in the Commission's policy response to FMD.
There have in recent months been a number of significant developments which taken together will have a major influence on the way forward. In May, the OIE adopted a number of important changes to its provisions on FMD, especially in relation to vaccination. In July, two major reports were released in the UK. First, the "Royal Society" report on Infectious Diseases. Second, the "Lessons to be Learned Report".
I will now move on from these generalities and address what I have identified as the key issues discussed in this committee. In the limited time available I will confine myself to the following issues which I note are of particular interest to you. Vaccination. Imports. Animal movements and identification. Animal Welfare. Intensive agricultural production. Contingency Planning.
There have been deep misunderstandings over the role of vaccination and the Commission's own approach. I have tried to put the record straight on a number of occasions. I do not propose to repeat what I have already said in the matter, including before this committee.
My remarks are confined, therefore, to future policy. The Commission remains of the view that prophylactic vaccination of the entire susceptible livestock population, or even particular species, is not advisable. However, the Commission is of the view that emergency vaccination should be moved to the forefront of the response mechanism in the event of future outbreaks.
The fact is that vaccination had been viewed as a weapon of last resort. It is now time to break with this approach. The means are now available to distinguish vaccinated from infected animals. The OIE has also adapted its code on FMD to reflect this progress. In particular, it has reduced from 12 to 6 months the minimum waiting period before a country that vaccinated animals, without subsequent slaughter of the vaccinates, can request the restoration of its FMD infection free status.
But most of all, it is no longer acceptable to the public that large numbers of animals can be slaughtered and destroyed now that new diagnostic tests have been developed and are available which differentiate between infected and vaccinated animals.
Consumers will, however, also have to accept that if vaccination is to be a more viable option it must be accompanied by an acceptance that the meat and products from vaccinated animals can be safely eaten. This is of course the case but there were suggestions in the course of the last outbreak that such products should be labelled to allow for consumer choice.
Animals are already vaccinated against a wide range of diseases, including FMD in the case of imports of maturated meat, without any indication to this effect in labelling. I consider that this policy should remain intact in the event that preventive vaccination is used to deal with future outbreaks.
The forthcoming Commission proposal for a Council Directive on FMD will reflect these orientations. We should not, however, be under any illusions. Vaccination is not a solution to all our problems.
While it must play a much more important future role, it cannot serve as an excuse to weaken our efforts to keep FMD out of the EU and away from susceptible animals. Nor can it avoid the need for difficult measures in the event of future outbreaks.
Stamping out will remain the course of action for dealing with infected animals and dangerous contacts. It must also remain possible as a strategy for reducing the number of susceptible animals in the vicinity of an outbreak.
I have noted the very serious concerns that poor controls on imports from third countries are at the origin of last year's outbreak. The suggestion is also that these controls must be strengthened.
In addressing these concerns I wish to make a very clear distinction between illegal and legal imports. Illegal actions are obviously by their very nature very difficult to eliminate. Even the strictest regulatory controls and surveillance measures cannot guarantee 100% security.
The task of keeping out illegal imports of food products is not dissimilar to the challenge of keeping out drugs. And it is clear that notwithstanding huge investment in manpower and very severe penalties, drugs still find their way into the EU. This should put the challenge in keeping out foodstuffs in perspective.
I am not impressed by some of the suggestions for mandatory searches of all incoming passengers to the EU. Such a measure would quickly prove to be both unworkable and an unacceptable intrusion on citizens freedom to travel.
Nonetheless, it is clear that there are weaknesses which can be addressed in a proportionate manner. This includes, in particular, personal imports. There are exemptions to the current health conditions and control procedures for imports of certain foodstuffs. These need to be reduced to the very minimum.
Earlier this week the Commission presented a proposal to the Member States in the Standing Committee on the Food Chain which will greatly reduce the possibilities for importing food stuffs in personal baggage which has not received official veterinary certification. Such imports will be effectively banned with the exception, under strict conditions, of infant milk, infant food and foods for medical reasons.
The proposal also requires the Member States to bring these requirements to the attention of travellers arriving from third countries. Passenger carriers, including airlines, will be subject to similar requirements. Leaflets and posters have been agreed which convey this information. Parliament has indicated already its support for this approach in its resolution on the outbreak of FMD at the time of the World Cup.
There was very substantial support for the proposal. It will be formally voted on at the next meeting of the Standing Committee with a proposed date of entry into force of 1 December this year.
I will now turn to the controls on legal imports. The evidence is that such controls have been effective. Prior to last years outbreak there was almost a decade when the EU was FMD free with the exception of three outbreaks in Greece. All of these outbreaks were attributable to incursions from Turkey where FMD is of course endemic.
During that decade hundreds of thousands of tonnes of fresh meat products were safely imported. These imports included large quantities from South America where FMD is also endemic. It is also clear that the outbreak last year could not have originated in South America as the Pan Asia O strain of the virus is unknown in that continent.
I have already outlined to you the controls in place in relation to imports, especially in the follow-up questionnaires to my last appearance before the committee.
Proposals that such imports should be banned must be viewed in this light. Yet, suggestions continue to be made to this effect. I cannot escape the suspicion that there is a very regrettable protectionist interest in these demands. Or, in other words, that the fear of FMD is being used as a pretext to reduce competition.
The Commission cannot give in to such protectionist interests. I hope that Parliament supports me in this view. There is a deep suspicion in the developing world that our veterinary and phytosanitary controls are already protectionist. These suspicions are prominent in both the Doha Development Round and also raised their head at the Johannesbourg Summit on Sustainable Development.
I make no apologies in my very regular contacts with agriculture and trade ministers from the developing world for our strict controls. I argue, with conviction, that they are a reasonable and proportionate response to the necessity to protect public and animal health in the EU.
I want to avoid undermining my credibility and the credibility of the EU as a whole on these issues which would result from the adoption of measures aimed at keeping commercial imports out of the EU. Certainly, we must continue to insist on strict controls on such imports. But, we must equally reject pressures to turn them into thinly disguised barriers to trade.
There have been two outbreaks of FMD during my term of office hopefully there will not be a third! The existence of this committee and my presence here today is a direct result of the second outbreak which was of epidemic proportions. The first outbreak in Greece, in the Summer of 2000, went virtually unnoticed.
There was no press attention, no debate in the Council or Parliament. The outbreak happened but was quickly eradicated with little or no notice. The factors which explain these contrasting outbreaks and their outcome cannot be overlooked.
One of the key factors which explains the epidemic in the UK, which led to over 2000 individual cases, was the huge movements in animals, especially sheep. Timing was a factor and the original outbreak, at the peak of the lambing season, could not have occurred at a worse time. However, even more important was the huge number of animal movements, frequently unrecorded, which took place from the time of the original outbreak in Northumberland and its detection in Essex.
The UK authorities were left with an impossible task in tracing the movements of animals and thus containing the outbreak. We now know for example that at least 57 farms, in 16 counties, were infected by the time the first case was confirmed.
Clearly, the experience in the UK suggests that once an outbreak has been confirmed there should be a very extensive standstill on animal movements until the scope and origin of the outbreak has been firmly established.
The lesson is that animal movements have to be much more effectively controlled. This emerges again and again from the discussions in this committee. The Commission has anticipated this lesson in a number of important proposals.
First, the Commission has already proposed to the Council a major revision of the conditions applying to staging points. These are locations where animals rest while in transit. The outbreak of FMD in the Netherlands can be directly linked to such a staging point in France.
The Commission proposal will require much stricter health requirements on animals which pass through such staging points. They will also become species specific and there will be mandatory sanitary intervals, after disinfection, between the departure and arrival of different consignments.
A further proposal which has also been submitted to the Council also introduces much stricter provisions on the movement of small ruminants, particularly sheep. In particular, it requires standstill periods during which animals cannot be introduced to herds from which movements are to take place. The objective is to reduce to a minimum the scope for onward spread of infection.
Movement controls can also only be truly effective if there are reliable identification systems in place. It is clear that the major weakness in this respect is in relation to sheep. The existing provisions are inadequate to allow the veterinary authorities to trace animals.
The Commission will present a proposal to the Council and Parliament shortly which will require individual identification of sheep. This will be on the basis of ear tags and flock registers. The intention is to move as quickly as possible to an electronic system of identification.
However, there are still obstacles to be overcome before this can be done on an EU wide basis. Until these obstacles are overcome, the traditional ear tag system, similar to what is in place in relation to cattle, will have to suffice. I feel obliged to alert Parliament that this proposal is likely to be controversial.
Farmers are unhappy with what they consider to be further red tape and bureaucracy. The Commission view is that, unfortunately, a price has to be paid if reliable identification systems are to be put in place in the event of future outbreaks.
The huge numbers of animals slaughtered and destroyed in dealing with the outbreak last year left had a very profound impact on public opinion. The images of burning pyres of animal carcasses, in particular, did huge damage to the image of all parties connected to the outbreak.
The Commission cannot ignore these views. Our approach towards FMD has to adapt accordingly. A number of the initiatives which I have spoken of, a more flexible approach towards vaccination for example, will go in this direction.
Improved provisions on animal transport are also key to addressing the animal welfare concerns brought to light by the FMD outbreak. The Commission is very advanced in its preparations of a major strengthening of the existing provisions of the animal transport directive.
Our preparations have revealed deep divisions in approach. These exist between producers and the animal welfare movement on one hand. And between Member States which trade in live animals and those which do not, on the other hand.
My view is that unless a higher degree of consensus is reached between these divergent views, any Commission proposal will not make progress. I am holding discussions with all the relevant parties in the coming weeks. There will also be a debate on animal transport in the Agriculture Council later this month.
In the light of these developments, I will decide on how best to make real progress on this sensitive issue. I would also stress that demands from some Member States for higher standards would be more credible if they made a better effort to implement the existing legislation.
I might also mention another major development the mid-term review of the Common Agricultural Policy. At first sight, this review may not appear to be relevant to animal disease control or animal welfare. However, the review will have a decisive influence of the future of agricultural production in the EU. And this in turn cannot be divorced from the health and welfare of animals.
The EU has chosen a model of agricultural production that is very intensive. This has had some very notable successes. These successes have nonetheless carried a cost. The concentration of very large numbers of animals in relatively small areas leaves such animals very vulnerable to infectious diseases. It can also compromise their welfare.
The risk of disease can of course be overcome by very stringent bio-security measures. The intensive pig rearing industries in the UK and the Netherlands both succeeded in escaping the FMD crisis last year. It was nonetheless a very nervous period and the consequences if the virus had entered these sectors would have been catastrophic.
I am not advocating for one moment that we can abandon intensive production. However, I do hold the view that the bias of the mid-term review towards quality rather than quantity is going in the right direction from the perspective of disease control.
The Commission proposals are radical in the emphasis placed on animal welfare and quality. It remains to be seen whether they receive the support of the Member States and the Parliament.
Mme President, I will say a few brief words about contingency planning. Clearly, there are many lessons to be learned from the events of last year. However, they are not necessarily new. The fact remains that the success in avoiding future outbreaks or eradicating them if they do occur will be decided by well known and well tried formulae:
High levels of bio-security and disease surveillance;
Quick and decisive action in the event of an outbreak including the mobilisation of the necessary manpower and resources;
Strict controls on animal movements and reliable systems of animal identification;
Clear leadership and allocation of responsibilities.
These formulae must be incorporated into contingency plans which are regularly reviewed, updated and are subjected to periodic simulation exercises. The lessons of the outbreak of last year are virtually identical to similar outbreaks in past. The challenge is to act on these lessons.
Mme President, I will now conclude. I want to make clear once again the hugely valuable role played by your committee in the evolution of the Commission's thinking of FMD. I look forward to the publication of your report. I can assure you that it will receive my full attention.
I would also like to express the hope that the Parliament will maintain its interest in foot and mouth disease. There is a lot of work remaining to be done. The Commission proposal for a new directive on foot and mouth disease is currently in translation. It is what I might call a "blockbuster" proposal which runs to over 130 pages.
This will provide the opportunity to have a full discussion between all the Community institutions on the way forward on FMD. In particular, it will address how to deal with any future outbreaks. I look forward to this continuing debate.
Thank you for your attention and I now look forward to your views.