International animal health body addresses food safety, FMD, and animal welfare

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More than 500 participants representing some 140 countries gathered in Paris this past May for the 70th annual General Session of the International Committee of the Office International des Epizooties. Standards approved by the committee, the highest OIE authority, affect international trading of animals and animal products, as well as aid with animal disease surveillance and control throughout the world.

At this latest session, held May 26-31, the International Committee modified sections of the OIE International Animal Health Code that member nations use to guide their trade regulations. Committee members passed resolutions confirming the role of veterinarians in safe food production and the need for OIE members, especially developing countries, to incorporate risk analysis methods in decisions relating to animal health.

Members approved a proposal to establish six months as the minimum waiting period for previously FMD-free countries found to have the disease to apply for recovery of its free status following the emergency use of vaccination without slaughter of vaccinated animals. There is a provision in the proposal, however, requiring that a serologic survey demonstrates the absence of FMD infection before free status is reinstated. The impetus for this proposal is the emergence of new technologies that enable the differentiation of animals vaccinated for FMD from those infected with the live virus.

Headquartered in Paris, the OIE is now beginning to expand its activities into other areas affecting veterinary medicine, specifically food safety and animal welfare. Members approved a resolution for the organization to start concentrating its standard-making activities on eliminating dangers existing prior to slaughter that could be a source of risk when animal products are consumed.

Leading the U.S. delegation to the OIE was Dr. Peter Fernandez, associate administrator of the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The delegation was comprised of senior APHIS and non-government officials, including Dr. Lyle P. Vogel, director of the AVMA scientific activities division, and Dr. Bruce Akey of the American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians, and Robert Frost, president-elect of the U.S. Animal Health Association.

The General Sessions have become more productive for the United States since APHIS began consulting American industries and stakeholders on matters pending before the OIE. "We have gotten direct input from our industries, not that that will be the position we will necessarily take, but we want to make sure that, at least, the sector and constituents in that sector are somehow included in our position," Dr. Fernandez said.

APHIS has also begun posting its comments to OIE matters on its Web site prior to the General Session so other member nations will understand the U.S. position. It is a way, Dr. Fernandez explained, for the United States to be more inclusive. "We made it very clear that we didn't expect countries to necessarily take our position as their position," he said. "But we felt it was an opportunity for them to understand what our position was and why we arrived at that."

Concerning the OIE's movement toward establishing animal welfare standards, the International Committee passed a resolution directing the organization to begin considering welfare issues regarding the transport and slaughter of animals used in agriculture and aquaculture. The OIE's animal welfare activities will eventually be broadened to matters pertaining to other animal sectors, including companion animals, laboratory animals, and animals used for sport, recreation, and entertainment.

Committee members voted to create an animal welfare mandate for the organization based on the advice of an ad hoc group on animal welfare. The group concluded that the OIE, which has official ties to the United Nations, World Health Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization, and World Trade Organization, is able to draw on a vast array of knowledge and expertise that can be used to develop animal welfare standards for member nations.

Working groups on food safety and animal welfare will be established in the future. As a member of the International Committee, the United States delegation can recommend experts to both groups.

Dr. Fernandez said APHIS is "concerned" about the OIE endeavor into developing animal welfare standards because discussion about the sensitive matter can be emotionally volatile, rather than scientifically driven. Given its international status, the OIE will have to address animal welfare issues, so there is no point in APHIS ignoring it, he added.

America and its partners, such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, would like to see the OIE start with animal welfare issues specific to animal disease management, such as depopulation policies during a disease outbreak. "If the OIE begins there, we think that it has a good chance of setting out, successfully, issues down the road that have more of an emotionally charged aspect," Dr. Fernandez said. "In fact, the objective there would be to try to avoid those [controversial issues] at all costs."

During the session, the OIE welcomed five new member countries, increasing its membership to 162. The organization signed formal agreements with the International Federation of Animal Health and the World Veterinary Association to improve animal disease control through greater collaboration.

Delegates debated three agenda items that resulted in resolutions being adopted. They passed a resolution reaffirming the role of the veterinary profession in guaranteeing food safety from the producer to the consumer. It also acknowledges the relevance of the "farm to table" approach to sanitary controls and the need for supporting developing countries in this area.

Delegates also passed a resolution reiterating the importance of risk analysis methods for animal health-related decision making, based on the International Animal Health Code. It emphasizes the importance of member countries not yet familiar with this approach of setting up ad hoc units and developing training programs, especially in developing countries.