Pet-ential competition concerns in the vet industry? UK watchdog launches review into the veterinary services market

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On 7 September 2023, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) launched a market review into the veterinary services market for household pets, amid concerns that: (i) information about prices and treatment options are not easily accessible to pet owners, and (ii) consequently pet owners are not able to make good choices about which vet to use and which services to purchase.

The review will focus on pricing, access to prescriptions and medications, the variety of services available, and pet owners’ awareness that their vet may be part of a larger chain (see the press release here).

Responding to the request for comments – practical advice

As part of this review, the CMA has released various questionnaires – which is open for up to 6 weeks from the launch date – in which pet owners and people who work in the industry (e.g. veterinary staff, suppliers to veterinary products, animal charities etc) can voluntarily provide information about their experiences.

Additionally, the CMA may pro-actively request information from market participants. However, as this is only a market review – distinct from a market study (Market Studies and Market Investigations: Supplemental guidance on the CMA's approach, Paragraph 1.9) or a market investigation – the CMA cannot compel market participants to respond. Any response is therefore voluntary.

If a market participant does choose to respond, it should consider carefully whether any information it provides to the CMA is confidential or commercially sensitive, and make this explicitly clear to the CMA. Although the CMA is under certain statutory obligations to protect confidential information (Enterprise Act 2002, Part 9; for example, excluding any sensitive personal or commercial information), it may in certain circumstances disclose the information to third parties (such as government departments, enforcement authorities, or even other parties providing information to the CMA) (CMA6 Transparency and disclosure: Statement of the CMA’s policy and approach, Paragraph 2.7-2.8) for the purpose of facilitating any further related work. The CMA may also use the information provided to take enforcement action against businesses operating in the vet services market. Not least, any information provided can also be shared within the CMA and potentially other competition or regulatory authorities.


Increased use of market reviews

This review is the third market review launched by the CMA within the past 16 months. The other market reviews are: (i) AI Foundation Models: initial review; and (ii) UK fuel retail market review, which led to the subsequent market study on road fuel.

Unlike market studies or market investigations, market reviews are not subject to statutory time-limits nor does the CMA have any compulsory information gathering powers in market reviews (Under the Enterprise Act 2002, Section 5; see also: Market Studies and Market Investigations: Supplemental guidance on the CMA's approach, Paragraph 1.9). Such market reviews may, but need not be, a pre-cursor to a market study (Market Studies and Market Investigations: Supplemental guidance on the CMA's approach, Paragraph 1.8) or even a market investigation . Market reviews are therefore a method for the CMA to gain know-how and make findings, but not be constrained by statutory time limits. Market reviews also give the CMA an opportunity to work collaboratively with stakeholders, which is an approach it has been keen to adopt further in recent years.

A continued focus on healthcare sector

This review continues the CMA’s focus on the healthcare and pharmaceutical sector, not least around pricing and consumer choice (CMA decision upheld in major drug price abuse case and CMA defeats legal challenge in medicine pricing case).

Parallels could be drawn with the CMA’s investigation into the private healthcare market, which found that a lack of price competition was harming customers. This resulted in a crackdown on incentives offered to referring clinicians, requirements surrounding the provision of greater information about private hospitals’ performance for patients via the Private Healthcare Information Network, and the ability for the CMA to review future arrangements. Originally, the CMA had considered divestiture of various private hospitals, but concluded this would be disproportionate in that specific instance.

More recently, in the CMA’s merger inquiry into Medivet Group, the CMA accepted undertakings from the group that centred mostly around divestment of various assets (as the CMA had found the proposed acquisitions would otherwise create a substantial lessening of competition). The CMA therefore already has some insights and views into how the sector is working.

Next steps

Further updates on this review are expected from the CMA in early 2024.

For further information or assistance please contact Saskia King and Pieter Erasmus.

Authored by: Saskia King, Pieter Erasmus and Quinn Liang.

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