7 April 2000

Now watchdog for fair trading turns to medicine prices

By Shelley Wright

COMPETITION watchdog the Office of Fair Trading is investigating the supply and pricing of veterinary medicines in the UK.

For years, British farmers have questioned why they have to pay more than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe for prescription only medicines (POMs).

And, after receiving complaints from, among others, the Scottish NFU, an OFT spokesman confirmed this week that an investigation was underway. "We are conducting a fact-finding exercise. Its impossible to say at this stage whether or not this will lead to any further action," he said.

In addition, as part of the Prime Ministers industry package last week, the government announced that there would be an independent review of dispensing by vets of POMs.

At the moment, there is no information on who will be appointed to conduct the review, or when that will happen.

Evidence

Late last year the Scottish NFU submitted evidence to the Scottish parliament showing that farmers in the UK have to pay as much as 200% more for some antibiotics compared with those in Ireland.

Roger Cook, director of NOAH, the trade body for the manufacturers of animal medicines, said his organisation had been asked to submit background information to the OFT on issues like the supply and distribution of products in the UK. No questions on pricing had been asked. In any case, NOAH as a trade body would not be in a position to comment on the prices of individual products, he added.

Mr Cook accepted that prices paid by farmers for animal medicines did vary from country to country.

But simple price comparisons were meaningless, he said. The whole cost of treating a sick animal had to be calculated.

Large mark-up

"Traditionally in this country, vets put a large mark-up on medicines rather than charging high fees for farm visits. By contrast, in Denmark, for example, vets are not allowed to supply medicines at all. They have to write a prescription and the farmer then buys the medicines from an agricultural pharmacist."

Although Mr Cook insisted that, on the whole, manufacturers were not pricing products according to what individual markets would bear, Eifion Evans, president of the British Veterinary Association, said there did seem to be price differences from manufacturers.

"We are in consultation with manufacturers at the moment and we very much look forward to a time when we can have parity of pricing," he said.