The initiative is backed by over 1.2 million people - but science and academic groups warn it would be a devastating blow for EU health research. A ban ‘would endanger the lives of millions of people’ says one MEP
Universities, science organisations and MEPs have expressed concern at a European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) that calls for the phasing out of all animal testing in the EU, including in basic biomedical research and preclinical development of new drugs.
The initiative, ‘Save Cruelty Free Cosmetics - Commit To A Europe Without Animal Testing’, has attracted over 1.2 million signatories around Europe and was discussed in a parliamentary hearing today.
While there were few objections to banning the use of animal testing in cosmetics or chemicals, a third demand, for the Commission to propose a road map to the phasing out of all animal testing in biomedical research, is causing alarm.
Sylvia Limmer MEP said, “A complete animal-testing free world is not possible unless you are willing to endanger the lives of millions of people including our most vulnerable groups, our babies and children.”
Pablo Arias Echeverría MEP said an outright ban would damage the EU’s strong global position in research and competitiveness and could lead to a brain drain.
“Unnecessary testing on animals should be phased-out, but this initiative goes too far,” said Christian Ehler MEP. “Where possible, science will move to alternatives but EU legislation is unnecessary and risks killing essential scientific work on human and animal health.”
MEP Marlene Mortler also spoke out against a total ban, saying it is important to listen to the assessment of research experts. “Technologies that can totally replace animal testing without restrictions are desirable, but far from reality,” she said in statement published ahead of the hearing.
The EU has been here before. In 2015, an animal rights group Stop Vivisection, launched a petition saying animal research is both scientifically flawed and ethically wrong, which attracted over a million signatures, stirring up a similar alarm among researchers.
Now as then, an outright ban would be “ambitious” said Carmen Laplaza, head of health innovations at DG Research, speaking on behalf of the Commission. “We are convinced that this objective will be reached but only once science has progressed sufficiently,” she said.
“Substantial and sustained investment in [non-animal alternatives] is key to reaching this target, and that’s where we’ll do our best,” Laplaza said, adding she expects to see more calls announced in the 2025-27 strategic plan of Horizon Europe related to developing NAMs.
A joint statement by the League of European Research Universities and EU-LIFE, published ahead of the hearing today, warned a ban would be the “death-knell” for biomedical science in Europe.
“While [non-animal methods] have significant potential, they are not able to substitute all uses of animals at present. They may not ever be able to in some cases,” the statement says. “Committing to a timeline for the phase-out of animal experiments is ill-advised and will significantly harm European competitiveness in the life sciences at a time when technological sovereignty is crucial to Europe.”
The EU made it illegal to sell any cosmetic products developed with the use of animal testing from 2013. This also applies to the ingredients that go into the product.
Animal testing of chemicals is covered by REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals), which entered into force on 1 June 2007. The regulation requires companies to use alternative methods whenever possible. However, animals are still required to test the long term effects of chemicals.
While it is not yet possible to replace the use of animals in chemicals testing, in basic research, or in preclinical testing of drugs, the EU has been a leader in moves to do this. The European Partnership for Alternative Approaches to Animal Testing was set up in 2005, with the backing of the then research commissioner Janez Potočnik. Its latest five year mandate calls for it to work on getting the European Medicines Agency and other drug regulators to accept non-animal toxicity studies.
Over the past two decades, there have been some significant advances in techniques for non-animal testing, for example, in silico modelling of toxicity pathways, the use of organoids derived from induced pluripotent stem cells as proxies for human organs, and improvements in in vitro cell line toxicity screening.
Reflecting this, in 2021, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for a faster transition to using non-animal methods based on the 3Rs strategy of replace, reduce, refine. But at that point parliament stopped short of calling for a roadmap to an all out ban, sticking with the line that animal testing should be phased out “as soon as it is scientifically possible” and “without lowering the level of protection for human health and the environment”.
But the groups behind the latest petition, which include People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Cruelty Free Europe, as well as the cosmetics manufacturers Unilever and The Body Shop, are worried loopholes in the regulations being exploited.
They were supported by several MEPs at the hearing, who highlighted the cruelty that animals that are bred for testing face.
They also argued that the rate of successfully transferring animal-based studies to humans is typically low and that non-animal methods (NAMs) may be more effective. As professor Thomas Hartung from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health once said, “humans are not 70kg rats”. Hartung is one of the pioneers in the development of organoids that can replace animals in biomedical research.
Supporters of the petition want to see greater investment in developing non-animal methods and more training for study regulators to be able to advise on their use when assessing research projects. There were no objections to this at the hearing today.