Animal welfare groups were left feeling cheated again after the European Parliament adopted, with some adjustments, a contentious report on the European Commission’s proposed revisions to the animal testing Directive, 86/609/EEC.

In the plenary vote, Euro MPs came out 540 to 66 (with 34 abstentions) at first reading in favour of the report by UK Conservative MEP Neil Parish, which was taken up by the Parliament’s Agriculture and Rural Development Committee at the end of March.

That decision infuriated animal rights activists, who saw the report’s amendments as a triumph of industry lobbying that would significantly weaken provisions for improving the protection of laboratory animals in EU legislation.

Activists were not much happier with the plenary vote, which maintained the gist of the Parish report. There were some concessions, though, to the animal welfare lobby.

For example, the Agriculture Committee had 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”. In the full plenary vote, that provision was expanded to experiments involving both “moderate” and “severe” pain.

MEPs also adopted amendments that clarified the text of the proposed legislation by providing definitions for the three categories of pain (“up to mild”, “moderate” and “severe”) inflicted on animals during laboratory tests.

The Dr Hadwen Trust for Humane Research cautiously welcomed the vote as a “partial victory for humane science offering a glimmer of hope for animals in laboratories”. At the same time, though, MEPs had “failed to defend the defenceless against some of the least justifiable excesses of experimentation”.

Industry response

Nor, in fact, was the biopharmaceutical industry unequivocally jubilant about the latest development in the long-awaited overhaul of Directive 86/609/EEC. The European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) also gave the plenary vote a cautious welcome, saying it was a compromise but a “step in the right direction”.

However, added EFPIA director general Brian Ager, there were still “several provisions that may potentially hinder the development of the new and innovative treatments that society wishes to see, addressing unmet conditions such as cancers, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and infectious diseases. We would now urge Member States to consider positively those provisions which enable the research to continue in Europe”.

The UK-based BioIndustry Association (BIA) stated: “At this stage, the report’s view of research represents a balanced proposal that considers both animal welfare and research needs, however, further modifications are still required”.

In particular, the BIA highlighted “some aspects of the report which could be detrimental to research without benefiting welfare”, including the inclusion of a number of non-sentient species, such as minute invertebrates; the lack of international acceptance for alternative testing methods; and mandatory cage sizes that, “as currently drafted, would harm animal welfare and incur disproportionate costs”.

From the other side of the fence, the European Coalition to End Animal Experiments (ECEAE) accused the Parliament of producing “a charter for the multibillion-pound animal research industry to carry on business as usual, with scant regard either for animal welfare or public opinion”.

And the UK-based Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) expressed “dismay” at the plenary vote, which “fell woefully short of what we hoped would be done to improve animal welfare”.

RSPCA senior scientist Barney Reed noted that in 2007, MEPs overwhelmingly supported a declaration calling for an end to the experimental use of great apes and wild-caught primates in Europe and a clear strategy for replacing all primate experiments with humane alternatives. “Today, when given the chance to follow these words up with actions, they failed,” he commented.

According to the Dr Hawdwen Trust, sustained lobbying by the animal research industry resulted in a vote allowing the re-use of animals in successive experiments [providing the associated pain is no more than “moderate”]; scientific freedom to experiment on many animals “without rigorous ethical scrutiny”; and leeway to use primates [but not great apes] in experiments “with no direct application to improving human health”. Parliament also rejected plans to phase out the use of ‘F1 primates’ (the offspring of wild-caught parents.

More encouragingly, the Trust pointed out, the Parliament had endorsed an upper limit on the pain animals could endure in laboratory experiments and had backed more determined efforts to develop non-animal testing alternatives.

Current EU-level initiatives in this area “are narrowly focused on regulatory toxicity, which only accounts for about 10% of EU experiments”, it commented. “Most animals in EU laboratories are used in basic medical research, where far less effort has been focused despite enormous scientific potential.”

National discretion

As the Parliament’s Agriculture Committee noted, the text approved by MEPs “stresses that the directive will not prevent Member States from applying or adopting stricter national measures to improve the well-being and protection of animals used for scientific purposes”.

The Directive as it stands will also have to be considered by a newly constituted European Parliament. “Owing to end-of-legislature calendar constraints, it has not been possible to conduct talks with the Council of Ministers with a view to reaching a first-reading agreement before the European elections in June,” the Agriculture Committee stated.

“It will therefore be up to the newly elected Parliament to confirm or amend the outgoing Parliament’s position and negotiate with Member State representatives in order to conclude work on this directive.”