The Office International des Epizooties issued a statement in October saying the major trade disruptions caused by recent bovine encephalopathy outbreaks were the result of a failure of many countries to implement its international, science-based standards—not that the standards are overly complicated.
The statement was, in part, a response to a request for clarification of the OIE guidelines on BSE. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman and her Canadian and Mexican counterparts made the request in September. According to Dr. Peter Fernandez, who represents the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service at OIE meetings, the three countries made the request because they felt many countries were misinterpreting the OIE guidelines and were not making science-based decisions about trade with countries where there have been cases of BSE.
Additionally, this past May, the OIE General Assembly passed a resolution that the director general of the OIE should simplify the system for categorizing countries by the level of BSE risk they pose.
The discovery of the first indigenous, North American case of BSE, in Canada in May 2003, led to a tremendous disruption of international trade in ruminant products. Many countries, including the United States, Mexico, and Japan, temporarily banned the importation of all live ruminants and most ruminant products from Canada. Some of these bans have since been partially lifted. The United States is currently allowing the importation of ruminant products considered a low risk for transmitting BSE. Also, the USDA is proposing new regulations that, if enacted, would make Canada eligible to export to the United States live ruminants with a low risk of introducing BSE. For more information, visit the USDA Web site, www.usda.gov.
The OIE standards on BSE do not suggest a total embargo of animals and animal products coming from BSE-infected countries, not even from countries that have a high BSE risk, according to the OIE statement. To protect human and animal health, the standards recommend risk-mitigating measures that match the degree of risk in the infected countries. The BSE standards do not recommend any restrictions on the trade of semen, embryos, milk, milk products, and gelatin and collagen from hides and skins.
"The current BSE standards serve as a strong foundation for facilitating international trade while protecting public and animal health," according to the OIE statement. "However, the considerable effort extended during the last 10 years to incorporate the advancements of science and understanding of the disease into the (standards) have unfortunately not resulted in the implementation by some countries in their import policies."
In fact, the United States, Canada, and Mexico are among the countries that have not completely followed the OIE standards, Dr. Fernandez said. All three countries have trade regulations that are more restrictive than the OIE guidelines recommend. He said the U.S. BSE measures tried to take into account the scientific understanding of BSE and public safety; however, as the science advances, the regulations must change to reflect these advances.
"As we learn more and more about these diseases, we need to make sure countries take into account the science," he said.
The failure of some countries to follow the OIE standards penalizes other countries with good and transparent BSE surveillance that declare cases and effectively control the disease, according to the OIE.
Guidelines offer up-to-date information, flexibility
Because the OIE standards on BSE are guidelines, and not laws, countries have some flexibility in how they use them, Dr. Fernandez said. This has led to some disparities in how countries interpret the guidelines and whether they use them at all.
Some of these disparities have been addressed recently, as part of the OIE's yearly review process for the BSE standards. In September, a group of international BSE experts met and determined that the scientific information in the current guidelines is still valid. They did suggest ways, however, to simplify the risk categories for countries, encourage more understanding of the guidelines, and facilitate the use of risk analysis by importing countries. The OIE Specialist Commissions will formalize the recommendations and submit them to the General Assembly in May 2004.
Still, the greatest challenge is ensuring that countries use the guidelines.
Dr. Fernandez said APHIS is working with officials in the European Union to come to an agreement about how to mitigate the risks posed by BSE. They plan similar discussions with officials from the Americas and Asia.
"We feel the OIE has encouraged us to continue to work with them and other countries," he said. "We hope to build a strong consensus and a strong coalition to move forward."
APHIS officials also are changing the U.S. BSE regulations to better reflect the OIE guidelines. Canadian officials are also working to synchronize their regulations with the OIE guidelines.
According to Dr. Fernandez, the changes are part of a larger APHIS effort to examine all U.S. animal health regulations and how they compare with the OIE code. Regulations that deal with the greatest risks to animal health and those that have the greatest impact on international trade will be examined first.
"We need to ensure that if we have a difference with the OIE guidelines, we have a science-based (reason)," he said.