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The OIE standards on BSE: a guide for understanding and proper implementation

The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) has become increasingly concerned about reports of international trade disruptions involving the misinterpretation of OIE standards. Recent published information on categorization of countries by the OIE indicates there are some apparent misunderstandings about the nature and purpose of the OIE international standards and guidelines, and their interpretation and implementation by Member countries.

The OIE Terrestrial Animal Health Code (the Code) contains standards, guidelines and recommendations to be used by national veterinary authorities to prevent the introduction of infectious agents pathogenic for animals and humans into the importing country during trade of animals and animal products, while avoiding unjustified sanitary barriers.

While the Code describes conditions for the classification of countries into one of five BSE risk categories, the OIE itself does not assign countries to all these categories. These are used by importing countries when determining the specific conditions for trade. However, the OIE has been recently requested to examine country submissions, made on a voluntary basis, for determining whether they meet the conditions to be officially classified by an OIE decision as "BSE free" or "BSE provisionally free". For the moment the OIE does not give an opinion on the further 3 categories existing in the Code. So far no country has been given such recognition by the OIE. Furthermore, the OIE has been requested by Member countries to reduce the current number of categories.

The Code also draws attention to the obligations under the provisions of the World Trade Organization-Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement (WTO-SPS), whereby the importing country cannot be more trade restrictive than necessary to achieve the desired national level of protection, and that its measures must not be different from those applied to products within the domestic market.

The OIE chapter on BSE currently describes five levels of exporting country status based on their determined risk level (free, provisionally free, minimal risk, moderate risk and high risk). It then addresses trade conditions for various commodities through an increasing degree of restrictions commensurate with the risks presented. For example, fresh meat may be imported safely from a country of any BSE status but with increasing restrictions so that, for countries presenting a high BSE risk, more severe measures are applied to the cattle and to the meat itself. The experts consider that, if these measures are followed, the meat is safe.

For some commodities however, the experts have determined that particular commodities should not be exported even from countries presenting a low BSE risk. For example, meat and bone meal, or any commodity containing such products, which originate from countries with minimal, moderate or high BSE risk should not be traded.

It is apparent that some Member Countries are applying trade bans when an exporting country reports the presence of BSE, without consulting the recommendations in the Code or conducting a risk analysis in accordance with its OIE and WTO obligations. While the Code provides increasingly restrictive recommendations which are commensurate with the level of BSE risk in each of the country status categories, it does not recommend any other ban than the above mentioned on trade of animals or specific animal products.

Regarding the BSE situation in the European Union and more recently in Japan, Canada and the US, the existence of valid up-to-date standards did not prevent major trade disruptions due to a failure by many countries to apply the international standard when establishing or revising their import policies. This has been particularly evident in the case of commodities for which the Code recommends that no restrictions be applied, regardless of the BSE status of the exporting country.

Except for short trade suspensions during investigation period following a new epidemiological event, it is of particular concern to the OIE that many countries apply trade bans when an exporting country reports its first case of BSE, without having conducted a risk analysis as described in the Code. Such situations penalise countries with a good and transparent surveillance system for animal diseases and zoonoses, and which have demonstrated their ability to control the risks identified. This may result in a reluctance to report future cases and an increased likelihood of disease spread internationally.