Animal welfare groups are furious at the adoption by a European Parliament committee of amendments that the groups claim will significantly weaken provisions for improving the protection of laboratory animals in EU legislation.

The Parliament’s Agriculture and Rural Development Committee adopted by 19 votes to 7 (with three abstentions) a report by UK Conservative MEP Neil Parish on the European Commission’s proposed revisions to the European Union’s animal testing Directive, 86/609/EEC.

According to the Agriculture Committee, the vote underlined the core objectives of limiting the use of animals in laboratory testing and subjecting any planned experiments to compulsory ethical review, while ensuring that research to fight disease in Europe was not hampered. “MEPS therefore amended the directive to make it better balanced and enable medical research to go ahead,” the committee stated.

But animal welfare organisations saw the outcome as a triumph of industry lobbying that had squandered an opportunity to usher in an era of more compassionate science in Europe.

Noting that the Agriculture Committee was the third to have watered down animal protection measures in the Commission’s draft revised Directive, UK-based non-animal medical research charity the Dr Hawden Trust said it was “shocked at the complacency and cowardice of MEPs who have so easily allowed dishonest industry tactics to ambush what should have been Europe’s chance to make its animal research laws respectable and progressive”.

Having been “heavily briefed by animal supply and user industries”, MEPs tabled more than 500 amendments to the revisions put forward by the Commission last year, “flooding the committee members with multiple changes that muddied the waters”, reported campaign group Animal Defenders International (ADI).

According to the Dr Hawden Trust, the Agriculture Committee “rejected virtually every measure aimed at improving welfare despite brave opposition from a minority of MEPs”.

The committee itself highlighted MEPs’ endorsement of a ban on the use of great apes in laboratory tests, except for experiments aimed at conserving these species. Other aspects of the Commission’s proposals, though, would drastically restrict the use of primates such as ouistitis and macaques, penalising European research “to the advantage of its American or Asian competitors, which are less strict on animal welfare”, the committee commented.

MEPs also rejected suggestions that tests on non-human primates should be restricted to “life-threatening or debilitating” conditions, which the committee claimed would “seriously hinder research into some forms of cancer, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease”.

Other European and international guidelines require some drugs be tested on primates before they are approved, the MEPs pointed out. Nor, they argued, should Directive 86/609 cover larval and embryonic or foetal forms other than mammals, “because of the complications of counting and recording the thousands of eggs laid by some female fish or amphibian species”.

More generally, the Agriculture Committee voted for the prior authorisations envisaged for animal tests in the revised Directive to be limited to projects involving primates or those where the pain would be “severe”. Amendments were also adopted to ease restrictions on the re-use of laboratory animals.

“To avoid repeated suffering, the Commission wants to allow the same animals to be re-used only if the test entails pain classed as ‘up to mild’,” the committee noted. “MEPs, however, believe that applying criteria that are too strict would result in even more animals being used for tests, which would defeat the object. They therefore ask for animals to be re-usable if the test entails ‘moderate’ pain. This would include blood tests or implants performed under anaesthetic.”

Pursuing alternatives

At the same time, the Agriculture Committee did put its weight behind more determined efforts to pursue alternatives to animal testing.

The Directive as it stands is unclear about the role of the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods, it said, adding: “MEPs believe the centre should be expanded to give it a genuine role in co-ordinating and promoting the development and use of methods that can replace animal testing”. Moreover, the Commission and Member States should provide material support for the development of these new experimental approaches.

The Dr Hawden Trust described the support for creating new EU and Member State facilities for the development of alternatives to animal experiments as “the only saving grace” of the Agriculture Committee vote. “Current Europe-level efforts to develop non-animal alternatives are too narrowly focused to impact on the majority of research areas where animals are used,” the Trust asserted.

Understanding Animal Research, the UK-based advocacy group formed last year from a merger of the Research Defence Society and the Coalition for Medical Progress, put out a subdued response, highlighted the main amendments of interest to its constituents and stating: “MEPs did vote for regulations that would ensure planned tests were subject to compulsory ethical assessment to take account of the public’s concerns. This would be the first time there has been such a legal requirement across the EU”.

Chief executive Dr Simon Festing said it would be a “significant step forward to see all countries in the EU raise their standards of regulation and welfare to the notably high levels achieved for animal research in the UK”.

Animal Defenders International saw things differently, though, arguing that the amendments would:

- reduce the scientific justification needed to experiment on monkeys;

- delay indefinitely European Commission proposals to stop the trapping of wild monkeys;

- put an end to the authorisation/licensing of “almost all” animal experiments;

- permit “almost unlimited re-use of animals in all but a handful of experiments, including toxicity tests and inducing brain damage”; and

- allow animals to suffer severe and prolonged pain.

ADI chief executive Jan Creamer commented: “This is a tragedy. MEPs are claiming to protect laboratory animals whilst simultaneously slashing protections proposed by the European Commission, which they spent years developing in consultation with all parties … This completely goes against public and political will, that wherever possible, animal research should be replaced by advanced techniques.”