Ministry reviews stance on animal testing

NEIL REID
Last updated 05:00 13/01/2013

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Policy advice sent to Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne states the testing of chemicals on animals, leading to some deaths, was a "regrettable" but "required" act.

Dunne issued a "please explain" request to Ministry of Health officials following revelations in the Sunday Star-Times on December 2 that consideration be given to testing legal-high products on animals, including dogs.

The programme - including the controversial LD50 testing process, in which 50 percent of each trial group of dogs would die - was canvassed in a ministry briefing paper on a bill to go before Parliament this year.

Within hours of our story, Dunne - who has headed the Government's crackdown on so-called legal highs - ruled out the use of LD50 testing. He said health officials were working on finding alternatives to other animal tests "wherever possible".

Two days after the initial article, and following the associate minister's "please explain", Ministry of Health deputy director-general, policy, Don Gray, provided Dunne with a preliminary list of potential testing regimens which didn't use animals.

Gray's correspondence, obtained under the Official Information Act, also included answers that Dunne could use if quizzed in Parliament by opposition MPs on proposed animal testing.

If he was asked "What animal testing will be required?", Dunne was briefed to respond: "Safety testing is required for a range of products before they can come to market in New Zealand.

"These include pharmaceuticals, food additives, and hazardous substances. It is a regrettable fact that, in [the] absence of reliable alternatives, some animal testing is required to protect public safety.

"In the case of psychoactive substances, no decisions have been made, except that the LD50 test will not be used. We need to make sure testing we do is robust, consistent with international best practice, and consistent with tests [for] any new substance designed for human consumption.

"This is not something I am prepared to give a hasty answer on before evidence is properly considered."

The document - titled "Aide Memoire regarding testing for psychoactive substances" - said previously legal highs had been sold which included chemicals "whose impact on humans is unknown".

"Substances are available with no testing or safety requirements," the advice to Dunne said.

"The point of the new regulatory regime is to make sure people know what they are consuming and the risks of it. That can't be done without testing."

Should Dunne be asked in Parliament "How can testing recreational drugs on animals be justified?", he was advised to respond: "The government is committed to minimising harm from the use of recreational drugs.

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"Ideally no one would use recreational drugs but we know that they do and they will continue to do so. This is why we are moving to regulate their sale in New Zealand, which will involve rigorous safety testing.

"The benefit to people is that we will be able to identify dangerous substances and stop them being sold."

Gray explained that it was hoped a "technical expert advisory committee", which would consider legal-high testing options, would be set up in March.

The committee should be in a position to report back on its favoured testing regimen in June.

The document nominated more than 20 testing methods that did not feature the use of animals. Anti-Vivisection Society committee member, Vivienne Sands, welcomed that move.

She said recent advancements had proven that non-animal testing could be far more accurate than older regimens that involved the use of rats and dogs.

"Non-animal tests using cell lines . . . give far more accurate results," Sands said.

"Recent research has shown they are 80-97 per cent accurate as opposed to the 40-60 per cent accuracy of rodent trials."

Some of the mentioned non-animal testings were now in "common use" internationally by pharmaceutical companies.

- Sunday Star Times

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