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Vet rule puts animals at risk

Christopher Booker's Notebook Jan 27 2002

MICHAEL CLARKE is one of the "commoners" responsible for the welfare of the ponies that roam semi-wild through the New Forest. He is also one of the millions of animal owners, from farmers to the keepers of domestic pets, about to suffer from "the vets' protection racket". A new EU directive, 2001/82, will ban the sale of any animal health product except on prescription by a vet. It will no longer be possible for pet owners to pick up ear drops for their cat from the local pet shop at £2.75. They will have to buy them from a vet, who may charge up to £40 for a visit.

No longer will Mr Clarke and his fellow commoners be able to worm their New Forest ponies twice a year, out of a sack bought for a few pounds from farm suppliers. They will have to pay for a day of a vet's time. Last week the Competition Commission launched an inquiry into why British vets already charge up to three times the EU-wide average for veterinary products, such as wormers, and up to £60 an hour for their services.

This new directive is particularly absurd because the sale of animal health products is already tightly regulated. About 3,200 people are professionally qualified by the Animal Medicines Training Regulatory Authority to sell such low-risk products. Yet their jobs are now threatened by a law which also threatens the survival of many agricultural suppliers, who depend heavily on such sales for their income.

Although it is claimed that the new law will protect the public against dangerous residues in meat, potentially damaging products are limited to prescription sale already. I first heard the term "vets' protection racket" nine years ago from a veteran of negotiations in Brussels who had been fighting a proposal that fish-processing firms should pay for veterinary officials to inspect their dead fish. Directives have since been used to impose veterinary inspections on one industry after another.

The cost of veterinary inspectors has been a significant factor in forcing out of business more than half Britain's abattoirs. Enforcement of Britain's food safety laws has now passed to the vets of the EU's Food and Veterinary Office in Dublin. Only last week the staff of a cheese factory in Somerset were asking why they had to wait around for the local vet to approve the despatch of a consignment of cheese to Spain. One worker, whose wife visits the same vet with her dog, understandably asked: "How does knowing about dogs qualify him as an expert on cheese?"

Yet thanks to the vets insisting that Brussels should pass yet another law requiring that only they should be allowed to sell flea powders, animal owners will soon have even more cause to praise Big Brother in Brussels for looking after us so well.