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OIE addresses demands on clarification of BSE standards

In order to protect public and animal health while avoiding unjustified sanitary barriers, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) continued its missions of collecting the most recent scientific information with the aim of updating, where necessary, the international standards published in the OIE Code on an annual basis.

The new cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) which occurred in Asia (Japan) in 2001 and in North America (Canada) in 2003 have contributed to worsen the problems linked to international trade and more specifically within trade of animal products.

As done during the last 10 years, the OIE convened a group of world-wide known experts who met from 22 to 26 September 2003 in order to take into account the most recent scientific knowledge in order to update the content and improve the understanding of the current OIE international standards on BSE.

Furthermore, during its May 2003 General Session, the OIE received a mandate from its 164 Member Countries asking to consider the simplification of the current countries categorization according to BSE status existing in the International Code. Those categories are useful to facilitate risk-based decisions on imports in animals and animal products.

Several requests from Member Countries were also submitted to the group for consideration, including a letter which had jointly been addressed to the Director General of the OIE by US Agriculture Secretary, Canadian Agriculture Minister and Mexican Agriculture Secretary.

While the scientific content of the BSE Code has not been questioned, the OIE has been asked through these requests to provide additional clarification on the interpretation of the BSE standards. It has also been asked to assist Member Countries in carrying out an appropriate risk assessment in accordance with international standards so that safe imports of animals and animal products can be done even from countries identified with BSE risk.

The present OIE Code has never suggested a total embargo of animals and animal products coming from BSE infected countries, not even from countries considered as having "high BSE risk". In order to protect public and animal health the present Code recommends different risk mitigating measures, with increasing levels of severity as they move from categories of countries of lower to higher levels of BSE risk.

In case of BSE, the existence of the Code did not yet avoid major trade disruptions due to a failure to implement international standards by many countries. In some cases, embargos are carried out without a science based risk analysis. This situation penalises countries with a good and transparent BSE surveillance, declaring cases while perfectly controlling the disease. Furthermore, the Code does not recommend any restrictions, regardless of the BSE status of the country, in trade of semen, embryos, milk, milk products and gelatin and collagen coming from hides and skins.

The current BSE standard serves as a strong foundation for facilitating international trade while protecting public and animal health. However, the considerable effort extended during the last 10 years to incorporate the advancements of science and understanding of the disease into the Code have unfortunately not resulted in its implementation by some countries in their import policies.

One of the most important conclusions of the recent OIE expert group is that the scientific basis used in the present Code is still valid. However, the scientists elaborated additional proposals for a better understanding of standards and guidelines, in order to facilitate risk analysis in importing countries.
Furthermore, the group also discussed and proposed simplifications of the risk categories by country or zone currently listed in the Code.

The experts also examined the requests by some Member Countries to be officially recognized as "BSE -free" or "provisionally free".

The recommendations from the expert group will be submitted to the Specialist Commissions, made up of elected members. These Commissions will then elaborate formal text proposals for consideration and adoption by the General Assembly of all Member Countries which will meet in May 2004 in Paris.

The OIE offers to organize, if requested and as it is foreseen by the Code, any experts technical mediations between Member Countries on a strictly scientific basis.