Tuesday, 18 October 2005
Draft Animal Remedies Regulations 2005: Motion.
Mary Upton (Dublin South Central, Labour)
The single most important aspect of the prescribing of animal remedies is the need to assure consumers that the food derived from animals which have received such remedies is safe and of good quality. Consumer confidence, which is a top priority, must not be compromised. It is equally important that the welfare requirements and health status of animals being treated must not be marginalised. As some of my colleagues have said, the consequences of a long delay in providing appropriate treatment for an animal need to be taken into consideration. Our export market must be protected.
The Minister referred to the problems encountered by Ireland when hormones and antibiotics were misused in days gone by. It is fair to say that hormones were never intended to be on prescription anyway. The question of their being prescribed or otherwise by certain people did not arise. It was cowboy territory and highly illegal. It was not a question of who had the right to say whether the hormones should have been prescribed. Many cases found their way into the courts. It was cowboy territory and did not have anything to do with prescriptions.
We need to balance the differing needs of the various stakeholders. Consumers, who are entitled to safe food, are the most significant stakeholders in the long run. The rights of the farming community, which can have great difficulty in accessing appropriate medicines for animals within a reasonable timeframe and at an acceptable cost, should not be compromised. Many of the Minister's remarks seem to be reassuring on the surface. I am sure we will pick some holes in her response later in the debate.
As I understand it, the most significant change proposed in the draft regulations is the requirement that all veterinary medicines, not just anti-inflammatory medicines and antibiotics, will be upgraded to prescription-only status. It is likely that vets will have a monopoly on prescriptions, so it seems probable that they will have a monopoly on the provision of veterinary products. I am glad that the Minister has raised her concerns with the Competition Authority. It seems that the information which was initially provided appears to suggest that the change was anti-competitive and that a monopoly situation was likely to evolve from it.
Questions have been asked about the possibility of other interests invading the market. The Minister spoke about the possible development of a black market, which is a likely outcome. It is a difficult aspect of the problem. A black market will develop, not for the first time or the last time, if proper means of enforcement are not put in place. Certain conditions must be put in place to ensure that no such scenario evolves.
It has been suggested that people other than vets be allowed to prescribe animal remedies. It could be argued that those who work closely with animals are in a position to determine the need for a particular animal remedy. Equally, it could be argued that the vet treating the animal under his or her care is the only person entitled to make a recommendation. I do not think that is necessarily the case, however. The concept of herd health is an important one. One of the flaws in these proposals is that vets will have the right to issue prescriptions on the basis of the examinations of herds which they will make once a year. Although many things can happen over 12 months, I understand that under the proposed regulation vets will not be required to examine herds more often than that. This aspect needs to be considered.
Some Deputies have raised serious concerns about the availability of vets. I agree that we need to consider the number of veterinary practitioners and surgeons available. Members who represent rural constituencies and places like my native territory of west Clare will be familiar with the difficulties encountered by people in such places when they try to access vets at certain times.
The Minister said that Údarás na Gaeltachta offers a subsidy — I heard an interesting spat about that precise matter on the radio last week — but she did not quite answer the question. Subsidies are being considered but they do not represent a solution. There are large gaps in the availability of veterinary services in some parts of the country. I understand that the dearth of vets may be caused by lifestyle considerations. It may be much more attractive for vets to get involved in small animal practice. As that attitude will not change, the matter will have to be addressed in an alternative manner.
I am not sure whether the Minister mentioned pharmacists who have a background that allows them to make judgments in many cases on the suitability of particular medicines. I hope we continue to allow them to make such judgments, particularly in consultation with farmers. We need to be given a definition of the phrase "suitably qualified persons". As a general principle, such persons should be allowed to write prescriptions, bearing human health and animal welfare considerations in mind. Farmers are entitled to a choice of supplier and to healthy competition in the marketplace, which is most important. The definition of "suitability qualified persons" is the key question in this context.
Changes have been made in the training of veterinary surgeons and other associated professions. Those who study agricultural science at UCD, for example, take courses which are also taught to those studying veterinary science. It should be possible to accommodate such changes and to ensure that courses appropriate to each category of student take account of the need for professional skills in dealing with animal health. The level of training offered to students should be designed to ensure that they are suitably qualified to advise on the need for a particular treatment. This proposal has been made by a number of interest groups which have addressed the Joint Committee on Agriculture and Food. Common courses are taught to students of animal science, food science and veterinary science. We should bear in mind that those who practice such professions share a common understanding of animal welfare needs, etc.
I understand that the proposed list system, to which the Minister referred, depends on total agreement at EU level. It is not a matter for just one EU member state. We need to address the real risk that the list which is currently accepted will become smaller and that a number of the animal remedies which are available without prescription will be removed from the list. There are good commercial reasons for ensuring that pharmacists can write prescriptions. I have mentioned the lack of veterinary expertise in some parts of the country. One is much less likely to encounter such a lack of expertise among pharmacists. There are good commercial reasons pharmacists can remain in practice when veterinary practitioners are unable to do so or might not want to remain in a particular part of the country where it can be difficult to deliver the practice.
Food safety, consumer protection, animal welfare and economic implications need to be borne in mind when decisions are being taken on the proposed regulations. As Deputy Naughten said, there is a chance that new drugs coming on the market will be excluded. It is important that we take action in that regard. This country stands firmly behind its clean and green image. None of us wants to do anything that compromises that image in any way. We need to ensure fair play for the farming community, veterinary practitioners and other qualified people without engaging in any form of compromise that would be detrimental to us.
I do not know whether the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, are fans of "The Simpsons". It is worth noting the course of action taken by Marge Simpson in the episode in which she discovered that the Simpsons' dog had fleas. Rather than putting a flea collar on the dog, Santa's Little Helper, she put it on her children. Although it was a novel way of dealing with an animal health problem, I would not endorse such a prescription from a veterinary point of view.