7 September 2001

Clampdown on vet products?

By Philip Clarke

INCREASED prices for animal medicines and thousands more job losses in the countryside are on the cards, if Brussels succeeds in ending the UKs system of selling veterinary products through agricultural merchants.

The proposed new legislation, which is to be forwarded to the farm council and European parliament in the next few weeks, would mean all health products for food producing animals would have to be sold as "prescription only medicines" (POM).

"That would cover everything from clostridial vaccines and wormers to sheep dips and fly ointments," says Roger Dawson, secretary general of the Animal Health Distributors Association (AHDA).

He believes that would threaten the existence of several hundred agricultural merchants who make a significant part of their incomes through selling "pharmacy and merchants list" (PML) medicines.

Describing the commissions plan as "another blow to an already depressed rural economy," Dr Dawson claims it will destroy the jobs of at least 3500 people who are qualified to sell PMLs.

It would also leave vets as the sole suppliers, resulting in higher prices for farmers and "a degree of over restriction, which will inevitably result in illegal trading and a lack of choice".

Currently only the UK and the Republic of Ireland allow merchants to supply PML products. In the UK they account for about 25% of the £357m animal health market.

"PML has served the industry well for many years," says NFU animal health adviser, Peter Rudman. "Ending it now would make it much more difficult for farmers to obtain everyday medicines and would put up costs."

Manufacturers, represented by the National Office of Animal Health, agree, pointing to possible welfare implications. "If farmers have to get a vet to inspect every animal before they are prescribed a medicine, some may be tempted not to bother," said a NOAH spokeswoman.

But persuading Brussels to change its mind will not be easy. AHDA wrote to the EUCommission in July, after the surprise proposal was first issued. In its reply last week, the commission said its plan "would not represent a significant change to the present situation in the EU", adding that its aim was to "ensure a high level of consumer safety".

"It is clear they do not understand, or do not want to understand what we are doing in the UK," said Dr Dawson. &#42

"This part of the commission is staffed by Germans who have been pushing for prescription only medicines for years. They want the directive agreed by next spring."

Dr Dawson is calling on ministers at DEFRA to join their Irish counterparts in opposing the proposals.