The UK Battles the EU to Preserve Protections for Lab Animals
When the E.U. adopted Directive 2010/63 in 2010 to protect animals used for research, it foretold the improvement of conditions for animals in laboratories in many European countries.
But not so in the U.K. The animal testing law there, known as the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 (ASPA), is more protective than the E.U.’s directive, which was set to go into effect January 1, 2013.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals produced a report called “Amending the UK Animal Experimentation Law — A Threat to UK Standards” which mapped out the differences between the U.K. and E.U. provisions and warned against the backsliding that would result from “transposing” (i.e. adopting) the E.U. directive. Some examples:
- The EU directive allows more suffering than the ASPA. It allows animals to be subjected to procedures that involve “severe pain, suffering and distress that is likely to be long-lasting and cannot be ameliorated,” if there are exceptional and scientifically justified reasons. The RSPCA report says that this “allows a higher level of suffering” than the ASPA. It is also ambiguous: the “type of scientific justification that might be considered acceptable is unspecified, and nobody has been able to provide an example of research that would require this level of suffering.”
- The Directive approves methods of killing animals that are inhumane and not permitted under the ASPA, like “very young puppies and kittens could be killed by a blow to the head and an adult bird the size of a sparrow could be decapitated.”
- Conducting research on great apes: according to the RSPCA, no European country uses great apes as research subjects. The E.U. directive, however, leaves room for such research to begin. The RSPCA protests the transposition of this portion of the directive into U.K. law, but U.K. law isn’t so great itself. The country is “committed” not to license research on great apes, but it isn’t clear how much a “commitment” binds the government.
- The E.U. directive permits smaller cages for dogs and rats than the ASPA does. Also, the directive offers no guidance about creating a “good environment” that satisfies the physical and behavioral needs of animals in research labs.
Last May the BBC reported that the U.K. government had decided to “retain stricter animal testing standards than required by a new European Union directive.” The RSPCA conceded that the government had done the right thing, but decried the 18 months it had to spend fighting just to stand in place.
Not everyone has been placated, however. The Humane Society International/UK is dissatisfied with the surviving UK regulations because they are “unlikely to do anything to significantly reduce the number of animals subjected to experiments,” but it doesn’t appear that this is the result of a change based on the EU directive.
The BBC’s report suggests that the UK did give way to the EU directive’s more lax standards in one area. Previously the UK required individuals working in animal research to be personally licensed. The BBC quotes a Medical Research Council official welcoming the UK’s “commitment to simplifying the personal licensing system… We look forward to working with the [government] to develop a simpler system.” The RSPCA, in its report, expressed concern about loosening the personal licensing requirements.
More generally, the transposition has become a political football, whether the rust-colored oval kind or the black and white round one. Tim Aker, Campaign Manager of a group called “Get Britain Out” [of the E.U.], used it as an opportunity to bemoan the E.U.’s power to degrade the U.K.’s legal standards. Writing in The Commentator, Aker claims that as of January 1st, E.U. Directive 2010/63 significantly weakened or repealed the laws protecting the welfare of animals in research labs. He cites this as a reason the U.K. should not be in the E.U. It seems to me, though, that Aker has not done his research, given that others have reported that the U.K. preserved its stricter protections — including Speaking of Research, a pro-vivisection group.
So much good news comes out of the E.U. about improving conditions for animals, particularly animals raised for food. This brouhaha is a reminder that what is an improvement for most countries may be a backslide for others. It is also a sign that the E.U. is not necessarily all that when it comes to animals. It is making slow, incremental changes, generally in the right direction, and I and other Americans are often impressed because we compare it to our own country’s near total failure to regulate the conditions for animals on factory farms. Comparisons aside, the E.U. is not always doing good, and it could always do better.