EU rejects bid to ban animal testing in European labs

Lab mouse - file pic Image copyright AFP
Image caption Labs often use mice - partly because they are cheaper than other animals

An EU-wide campaign to stop laboratory experiments on animals has failed to persuade the European Commission to impose a ban.

The Commission said the EU was aiming to phase out animal testing, but it was still too early to ban tests on live animals conducted for medical research.

The campaign group Stop Vivisection gathered 1.1 million signatures in a bid to change the law.

The Commission says a 2010 directive allowing animal tests will remain law.

It sets out detailed animal welfare rules for scientists conducting lab tests on animals.

Drug treatments and chemical toxicity are two of the most important research areas for such tests, and in most cases mice or rats are used. Cosmetics cannot be tested on animals under EU law.

There is often controversy about how closely animal tests can mimic human biology and scientists are refining alternatives, such as computer models.

Labs in the 28-nation EU used 11.5 million animals in experiments in 2011, according to the most recent official data available. France, Germany and the UK accounted for 55% of the total number.

In its response to the Stop Vivisection petition, submitted under an EU mechanism called "European Citizens' Initiative (ECI)", the Commission said that "for the time being, animal experimentation remains important for protecting human and animal health, and for maintaining an intact environment.

"While working towards the ultimate goal of full replacement of animals, Directive 2010/63/EU is an indispensable tool at the EU level to protect those animals still required. The Directive implements the Three Rs - to replace, reduce and refine animal use in Europe."

Under EU rules the Commission has to consider legislative changes if more than a million people in at least seven EU countries sign a petition on a particular issue.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Last month animal rights group Peta protested against Air France sending monkeys to labs

'Crucial role' of tests

The Commission said it "welcomes the mobilisation of citizens in support of animal welfare" and will organise an EU conference on animal testing "by 2016" to review the progress made towards reducing such tests.

Its response to the petition was welcomed by several research scientists, quoted by the Science Media Centre.

Nancy Lee at the Wellcome Trust said the Commission had recognised "the crucial role that the carefully regulated use of animals in research has in improving human and animal health and advancing modern medicine".

Prof Jan Schnupp, a neuroscientist at Oxford University, said strong animal welfare safeguards were in place in the EU and animal tests were carried out "only if these experiments have passed tight scrutiny by independent ethics boards".

More than half of those who signed the petition were in Italy, where it was launched.

Nick Palmer, head of policy at the UK anti-vivisection group Cruelty Free International, said the UK "is one of the largest users of animals in research in Europe and the UK is particularly secretive".

Speaking to the BBC, he said UK researchers do not have to publish full details of such experiments, whereas in much of Europe they do. He also complained that the number of such tests had risen in the UK.

"We are pleased in principle that the Commission is saying explicitly they think animal experiments should be phased out, but we're unhappy with the absence of any clear strategy to do so," he said.

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