Science & Environment

Government retains UK's strict animal testing regime

Scientist holding mouse
Image caption The UK has the highest welfare standards for animal research in the world

The UK says it will retain stricter animal testing standards than required by a new European Union Directive.

The Home Office Minister, Lynne Featherstone, said that special protection for dogs cats and primates would be maintained.

Ms Featherstone also said that a centralised system for approving research licenses would continue.

The statement was welcomed by the research community and animal welfare organisations.

But the RSPCA's senior scientific officer, Barney Reed said that he was concerned the government was initially prepared to accept EU regulations which would have allowed smaller cage sizes, the use of less humane killing methods and the watering down of the powers of ethics committees which oversee animal research.

"It's been unfortunate that we've had to battle for 18 months to pretty much stand still and maintain the standards that we currently have," he told BBC News.

Professor Roger Lemon, a prominent medical researcher at University College London and spokesman for the campaign organisation Understanding Animal Research, said the UK had the highest welfare standards in the world for animal experimentation.

"We applaud the Home Office decision to hold on to those high standards," he said.

The EU has set minimum standards for the care and welfare of animals used in research in a directive which has to be implemented by the beginning of next year. The regulations are largely in line with UK directives which are policed and administered by the Home Office. But in a small number of areas, the standards are slightly lower.

The chief executive of one of the organisations that funds animal experiments, Prof Douglas Kell, said he welcomed legislation that he believes aims to improve welfare standards across Europe.

"Harmonising standards ensures that researchers collaborating across European borders are working together to achieve animal welfare with a common understanding," he said.

"This is increasingly important in areas like livestock diseases where researchers are working together to combat emerging threats".

Kailah Eglington, the chief executive of the Dr Hadwen Trust, which funds research into alternatives to the use of animals in research, said that the amended act will enshrine the principles of reduction, refinement and replacement of animal experimentation in law, making it harder for scientists to use more animals in future research.

Image caption Special protection for primates, dogs and cats already enshrined in UK law will continue

"The current 'gentlemen's agreement' of replacing animal experiments with non-animal alternatives will be reinforced by transposition of key new EU provisions into UK law," she said. "The new regulations will help replace the use of animals in all medical research and enable more scientists to focus on developing human-relevant alternatives throughout Europe."

Troy Seidle, director of research & toxicology at Humane Society International/UK, said that the Home Office's response offers little in the way of reform in the way that animal experiments are regulated in Britain.

"(It) is unlikely to do anything to significantly reduce the number of animals subjected to experiments. This response seems largely about maintaining the status quo which means maintaining an already flawed system that is insufficiently scrutinised with independence or scientific rigour," he said.

Dr Tony Peatfield, Director of Corporate Affairs at the Medical Research Council (MRC) noted that the Home Office had responded to calls by the research community to reduce the bureaucracy involved in regulating animal experimentation.

"The MRC strongly supports any effort to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy where there is no benefit to the welfare of research animals. We particularly welcome the commitment to simplifying the personal licensing system, aimed at ensuring that all those who work with research animals are properly trained and fully competent; we look forward to working with the Home Office to develop a simpler system."

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