EU plans to cut animal tests

Industry groups pledge to collaborate on refining, reducing, and replacing the use of lab animals

By | November 16, 2005

A leading animal rights organization in Europe has given a cautious thumbs-up to a pledge made by industry groups last week to help the European Union expedite the search for new alternatives to animal testing.

At a meeting in Brussels hosted by the European Commissioners for Enterprise and Research, Günter Verheugen and Janez Potočnik – along with groups representing the chemical, cosmetic, pharmaceutical, biotechnology, soap and detergents, animal health, and crop protection industries -- signed a joint declaration on the "3 Rs"-- refining, reducing and replacing the use of lab animals.

"We think it is a very promising initiative," said Marlou Heinen from the Eurogroup for Animal Welfare, an umbrella group for some 19 animal welfare organizations. "But we see it very much as a first step—whether it will be an actual success will very much depend on how this is going to be implemented."

The ultimate goal of the partnership is to eliminate the use of animals in testing altogether, Verheugen said in a statement. "We do not only wish to reduce animal testing, but also want to bring it to an end in the long run."

So far, the details on how that is going to be achieved are yet to be worked out. The declaration commits the signatories to developing an action plan, which they are due to deliver by early in 2006, said Sebastian Marx from Colipa, the cosmetic industry group. "Then the real flesh will be put on the bones," he told The Scientist.

Colin Humphris, spokesman for the chemicals industry group Cefic, agreed that the partners were "feeling our way" in terms of how the collaboration might work. "But what I think is important is that when you bring together these different sectors, you bring together different programs of work that relate to this area," he told The Scientist. "There's some common interest there."

As many as 10.7 million animals are used annually for experiments in the EU according to figures quoted by the European Union. More than half of these are used in research, human medicine, dentistry and fundamental biological studies. Another 16 percent are used in production and quality control of products and devices in human and veterinary medicine and dentistry, and 10 percent for toxicology and other types of safety evaluation.

In 1986, an EU directive insisted that whenever an alternative to an animal experiment exists, it has to be used, and called for support to make such alternatives available. But the timing of the current initiative had a lot to do with another proposed EU directive that could have the opposite effect of the earlier directive.

That new law, under debate at the moment, is REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemical Substances), a framework designed to gather better information on the chemical substances that reached the market before 1981.

REACH would require testing of those old substances to evaluate their health and environmental risks. The trouble is, Verheugen said, the proposal as it stands could require millions more animal tests. "REACH is not ethically acceptable if it leads to such excessive additional use of animals. I will do everything I can to change the current proposal in this respect," he said in a report on the Euractive news service.

Marx said the imminent arrival of the REACH rules was a big impetus for last week's animal testing declaration. "This is not really a response to the actions of animal rights groups," he said. "We have new legislation coming and we need to do something."

The declaration signed last week commits the signatories to making a progress report at about the same time next year. For Heinen, this is another positive sign. "That will enable us and other stakeholders to see that the promises are being met." A key sign of success will be evidence of extra financial commitment from industry, she said.

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