Getting routine animal
health products locally and
at an acceptable price could
be more of an ordeal if
changes to an EU directive
are adopted next month.
Simon Wragg reports
PLANS to change the status of many routine animal health products from Pharmacy and Merchants List (PML) to Prescription-Only Medicine (POM) could hit sheep producers pockets.
The changes, presented as an amendment to the EU directive on veterinary medicinal products next month, are meant as a measure to improve the safety and supply of animal medicines and, as such, are widely supported by vets.
A consequence of potential changes to current regulations would mean fewer products being available direct off the shelf at farm merchant outlets. Instead, producers would need to acquire a prescription from a vet in the same way as some human health products are restricted.
According to Ian Gill, president of the Sheep Vet Society, there is good reason for change. "We are talking about a range of products including wormers, but also live vaccines against diseases such as orf and enzootic abortion. There are a number of PML products that are currently widely available which could be hazardous.
"In SVS members experience, 40% of vaccines are used incorrectly, either through administering the wrong dose or not completing the treatment programme. In that respect, re-categorising some PML products as POM will be a positive step. Producers will be sure of getting vet advice before treating livestock."
Merchants feel differently, believing changes would stifle competition, result in the closure of many rural PML outlets and lead to an inevitable increase in medicine prices.
According to Roger Dawson, of the Animal Health Distributors Association (AHDA), the proposed changes would be a retrograde step. "We have no objection to medicines being regulated, but the proposal ignores the fact that the current system of merchants supplying PMLs to producers works well."
Many outlets have AMTRA qualified staff, indicating a professional knowledge of handling animal medicinal products. "We offer a service to the farming sector that is already regulated. If the changes go ahead for no good reason, the farming community could see the widespread closure of many merchants for whom PMLs account for 25-40% of sales."
Closure of farm merchants supplying PMLs would put most medicinal product sales firmly in the hands of vets, albeit not exclusively. If that led to an increase in product supply prices, both parties remain concerned over a possible increase in black market sales.
But Mr Gill is adamant the situation will not degenerate to that extent. "What we are looking at is vets issuing a prescription in future and the producer being able to find a supplier whom they feel is offering the right product at an acceptable price."
Distributors believe the issue is much broader than an argument over pricing. Ian Scott, commercial director of co-operative farm merchants CWG, says the loss of PML trade that accounts for 20% of the groups sales turnover would lead to branch closures.
"It has to be said that some of the smaller outlets would not survive. In effect, the PML/POM rule change would have a much wider impact on the availability of services to producers and that has, to a degree, already been seen in the eastern areas where livestock numbers have dwindled."
Vets and distributors have made representations to the EU Commissions Environment Committee. It is scheduled to consider all the submissions at its next meeting in September. Even if adopted, the re-categorisation of medicinal products may not be enforced until 2004. Notably, the AHDA claims to have won support from a number of MEPs from a cross section of political backgrounds.
Not first time
It is not the first time officials have been considering the topics of medicinal product pricing and competition. The governments recently published Marsh report highlighted the need for vets to issue prescriptions to producers to improve transparency in the system.
Although concerns over rising vet labour costs were aired, contributors to the report believe there is a way forward.
John Moffitt, now retired from dairy farming in Northumberland, was the producer representative on the Marsh reports committee and believes vets should review charges to make price distinctions more accessible.
"The UK market is still out of sync, with higher prices for many products than other EU countries. Many producers are loyal to a specific vet practice and, as such, if a more proportionate charge was made for visiting units and issuing a prescription, it would be easier to compare medicine costs between suppliers," suggests Mr Moffitt.
"There is a lot of debate on this subject, but so much is generated by fear of the unknown. The certainty is that a vet is the only party able to issue a prescription, but not the only person able to sell the product. If that can be safeguarded, competition should remain intact," he says. *
• Fewer PML products available.
• Some distributors could close.
• Less competition; price rises?
UK producers pay higher prices
for vet medicines than their European counterparts,
says John Moffitt (right).