Caged ChimpThe European Union is making big strides in its policies regarding animal welfare. On Tuesday, the European Council approved new rules setting limits on animal experimentation. “Approval of the draft directive is a step towards the ultimate goal of achieving the full replacement of experiments on live animals as soon as it is scientifically possible to do so,” said a statement from the European Council. Though the European parliament still has to vote on the new policy, it is expected to do so, probably in Fall of this year.

Our primate cousins will be the main beneficiary of the new rules. Experiments on great apes such as chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans would be banned. Exceptions would be allowed if “justifiable reasons for believing that it is essential for the survival of the species itself or because of an unexpected outbreak of a life-threatening or debilitating disease in human beings.” In addition, in most cases animals taken from the wild will not be allowed to be used in experiments.

The directive also calls for “the degree of pain and suffering caused to animals is limited to the minimum.” I’m not exactly sure as to how they define “pain,” “suffering,” or “minimum,” or how this clause would be enforced, but I do commend the European Council for at least addressing the issue.

This isn’t the first time the European Union has shown progress regarding animal experimentation. Using animals to test cosmetics has on animals has been banned in the EU since 2009, except for certain long duration toxicity tests, which will be phased out in 2013. The EU’s polices regarding animal testing and cosmetics may end up impacting trade with the U.S. According to the New York Times, John Dalli, the European Union’s health and consumer affairs commissioner, wants to “eliminate exceptions that have allowed cosmetics companies like Estée Lauder and L’Oréal to use ingredients that are tested on animals.” Unless they go cruelty-free, American cosmetic companies may find themselves locked out of the European market.

One of the most striking things about the European Council’s position on animals in research has nothing to do with any specific rules or polices. It has to do with attitude. The proposed law states that animals are “sentient creatures” with “an intrinsic value in themselves which must be respected.” While to some this may seem obvious, the sad reality is that many in the U.S. scientific community still see animals as mere test subjects, whose only value derives from what humans can learn by experimenting on them.

It’s not a popular sentiment, but sometimes Americans can learn a thing or two from the Europeans. This is one of those times.

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