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The role of animal health and zoonoses standards on disease control and trade (by A. Thiermann)

In order to properly address the role of international animal health standards developed by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) in trade, we must first make reference to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Historically, the General Agreement for Tariffs and Trade (GATT) had been working on the reduction and elimination of tariffs and subsidies in trade. During the Uruguay Round of the 80s and early 90s, the GATT turned its attention to agriculture and particularly the sanitary aspects of agricultural trade. One of the most significant outcomes of the Uruguay Round was transformation of the GATT into the WTO, and  the signing in 1994 of the “Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures” (SPS) [see ]. This Agreement is essential for the international trade in animals and animal products as it provides the legal framework for the application of OIE standards, guidelines and recommendations.

The WTO recognizes that each country has the sovereign right to determine its own level of protection when establishing sanitary measures on imports. However, these rights are accompanied by clear obligations. Countries adhering to international standards and recommendations when developing their import policies don't have to justify deviations from existing international standards through a risk analysis. Countries must also ensure that the sanitary measures are applied only to the extent necessary to protect animal health and do not constitute arbitrary or unjustified discrimination between Members. Sanitary measures applied on imports cannot be more restrictive than those applied at a national level.

Among the more important special provision of the SPS Agreement, we recognize those on harmonization; equivalence; assessment of risk and appropriate level of protection; regionalization; transparency and notification.

Possibly the most important of all special provisions of the Agreement is the one on harmonization. Under harmonization the Agreement encourages its Members to harmonize their sanitary measures on as wide a basis as possible, by basing them on international standards, guidelines and recommendations, where they exist. As relevant standard-setting organizations, the SPS Agreement recognizes the OIE for the development of standards, guidelines and recommendations on animal health and zoonoses. Thereby conferring extreme importance to the standards set by the OIE. For food safety standards it recognizes the Codex Alimentarius and for plant health the International Plant Protection Organization.

The SPS Agreement also called for the formation of an SPS Committee charged with assisting and monitoring the implementation of the Agreement. The meetings also become an excellent venue for countries to report on trade disruptions, giving the opportunity to the accused country to explain its decision and to reconsider the trade-restrictive actions taken. The OIE participates in an advisory capacity providing relevant information on the existing standards during the discussion on trade disruptions, thereby preventing misinterpretation of the international standards. The SPS Committee meeting also serves as a venue for the identification deficiencies in international standards, or for areas where the absence of specific standards is causing significant trade disruptions. This information is taken up by the OIE and used when setting priorities in the future work programs. 

When examining mechanisms for resolution of disputes, the first to be recognized should be the existing trade mediation procedure within the OIE. Disputing countries can request the mediation by a panel of experts from the Director General of the OIE. This process has several advantages, as it is not as resource-demanding as the formal process in the WTO and allows for face-saving win-win solutions based on additional technical measures at times not yet considered. At the end of the process, the recommendations from the panel are communicated by the Director General to both parties.  While this process is confidential and non-binding, should the case eventually result in a formal dispute at the WTO, the documentation from this mediation, and the experts conducting the mediation can be used by the WTO.

A similar approach to the OIE dispute mediation is the one offered by the SPS Committee under the so called Article 12:2 While this is simple and does not require extensive legal preparation and it encourages parties to examine options which may have not been fully considered, it has the disadvantage that it does not focus as much on the technical aspects of the dispute, as it lacks the technical experts in the panel. Should an agreement not be reached by the countries under this mediation, the affected country can then proceed with the formal dispute resolution process by requesting the formation of a panel by the WTO.

The standards and guidelines set by the OIE are found in several official documents: the International Animal Health Code (Code) which contains the standards on diseases of mammals, birds and bees; the Manual of Standards for Diagnostic Tests and Vaccines which complements the Code; the International Aquatic Animal Health Code (Fish Code) which contains the standards on diseases of fish, mollusks and crustaceans, and which is complemented by the Diagnostic Manual for Aquatic Animal Diseases.

The Code provides detailed recommendations on sanitary measures for the safe importation of animals and animal products, while avoiding unjustified trade restrictions. It covers recommendations on diseases of cattle, swine, horses, rabbits, poultry, dogs, cats, and bees. The Code also contains recommendations on horizontal topics such as import risk assessment, regionalization, surveillance and monitoring, evaluation of veterinary services, as well as obligations and ethics in international trade. The Code is published in English, French, Spanish and Russian, and a version in Arabic will soon be available.

The process for developing a new standard or for reviewing an existing one begins with a request from the International Committee, a Member, or one of the Commissions. The request is handed over to the Code Commission who then seeks the advice from an expert or from an Ad hoc group of experts, as well as from other Specialist Commission.  The resulting draft text is then circulated for Member comments. This process is repeated once more before presenting these drafts for either comment or adoption by the International Committee in May of each year. A new chapter can be adopted within two years of its first draft and after circulating the text four times for comments from Members. 

The Code Commission has identified the following priorities for this coming year: guiding principles in animal welfare, review of existing disease chapters for inclusion of food safety recommendations, continuing to update existing chapters in addition to the harmonization of the Code with the Fish Code. The review of the chapters for inclusion of animal production food safety will be coordinated by the Working Group on Food Safety and in close collaboration with Codex Alimentarius experts.

In order for a country to benefit from the provisions of the WTO SPS Agreement and take full advantage of the OIE standards in its trade it must have a high quality veterinary service. This veterinary service must also have a robust surveillance and monitoring system in order to provide assurances of its sanitary status and to minimize and manage risks.

Countries can improve their participation and maximize their benefits in the international trade by working closely and more strategically with their OIE Delegates. Draft standards and texts are distributed at least twice a year by the OIE to the Delegates. These can then set up mechanisms for sharing these with interested stakeholders and specialists interest groups. And then receive input to be included in the national response to OIE.  When proposing changes to chapters, countries are encouraged to provide the OIE with an appropriate scientific justification. Countries must also keep in mind that these have to be trade-neutral, meaning that these standards have to make as much sense whether one is approaching the subject as an importer or exporter. 

Maria Zampaglione

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