It was springtime in Paris when the World Organization for Animal Health, a deliberative body of 167 member countries, convened there in late May. Among the subjects discussed were BSE and animal welfare, and some of the standards they adopted could be good news for U.S. cattle producers.

Delegates to the OIE are the chief veterinary officers of its member countries, and the organization is authorized by the World Trade Organization to set rules for how countries trade animals and animal products. “We are responsible for producing guidelines,” says Alex Thiermann, president of the Terrestrial Animal Health Standards Commission of the OIE. “The guidelines are not mandatory; legal enforcement of the standards is under the WTO. If two countries disagree, they challenge each other in WTO court.” The WTO says that those standards must be followed, unless scientific evidence is produced to justify failures to do so.

New BSE standards
The OIE’s international standards on animal health cover a few more than 100 diseases. Though BSE is not the one currently killing the most animals and people (those would include foot-and-mouth disease and avian influenza), it was a major topic this year. 

“BSE standards have been in place for 15 years,” Dr. Thiermann says. “Every time there’s new information, experts are convened and they propose changes. With BSE, the standards have been modified yearly.” This year’s modifications state that all boneless beef from cattle less than 30 months of age can be traded, regardless of a country’s BSE status. Other cuts, including those from cattle more than 30 months of age, can be traded as long as certain safeguards are implemented.

“What happened this year is not that significant a change,” Dr. Thiermann says. “It was concluded that there was enough scientific information to say that if you’re trading these, and you follow the guidelines, they should be considered safe.”

The changes made reflect the available science. “It is acknowledging that the BSE infective agent has never been detected in beef muscle, that beef is safe to eat regardless of age,” says Glenn Slack, president and CEO of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, who attended the meeting as an observer.

During the next year, OIE delegates want experts to study the significance of an animal’s age, to determine the scientific soundness of its policy that beef muscle from animals over 30 months of age presents a higher risk. “In standards today, the breakpoint is animals older than 30 months,” Dr. Thiermann says. “The disease can affect animals at a very young age, but in tissues of risk, it begins to show up at 30 months; it has a long incubation period. They are asking scientists if there’s enough information to remove that provision and recommend meat from animals of all ages could be considered safe.” Consequently, further modernization of the BSE code is a possibility in 2006.

An animal’s age was previously thought to be significant based on epidemiological investigations showing that the infective agent could only be detected in certain tissues when a cow had matured, Mr. Slack says. And there were questions that had to be resolved in the scientific community about whether it is present in muscle tissue. “The decision to wait until next year and review the science further was a compromise with a few member countries that were holding out on agreeing to any changes to the BSE chapter as a whole because they interpret the science differently than the universal scientific community.”

The changes may get countries to recognize that the risk of trading red meat is lower than it is perceived and adjust trade barriers accordingly. “In the opinion of the OIE, regardless of the standard we have, very few countries are trading according to them  —  trade barriers far exceed those standards. They go home and apply different standards,” Dr. Thiermann says. “The OIE cannot mandate, but those countries have to justify their decisions scientifically in the WTO court.”

New BSE classification
Trading partners use the categorization system to determine the level of risk and the conditions for trade. “Previously, the OIE classified countries using a five-catagory system: free, provisionally free, minimal BSE risk and high BSE risk,” Mr. Slack says. “Only four countries had been classified as ‘provisionally free’  —  Argentina, Iceland, Singapore and Uruguay  —   and none as ‘free.’ So it was not a very effective system for classification.”

This year, the five categories were reduced to three. “The classification system has evolved,” Dr. Thiermann says. “From the very early stages, during the early events in Europe, the emphasis was on the number of cases. The U.K. had so many cases, it seemed that the risk was greater. But no country is completely free; it has to do with the number of years the bone-meal ban has been in place, the number of years of checking for the disease. And countries were saying it was too complicated: what is the difference between 10 cases and 100 cases? It might have more to do with the ability to detect than with disease incidence. We decided to focus more on: Are you looking for it? And if you found it, are you doing the right things to minimize the risk?” 

The adopted system’s categories are now negligible risk, controlled risk and undetermined risk. In order to determine the BSE-risk category of a country, they must conduct a detailed risk assessment, identifying all potential factors for BSE occurrence and their historic perspective. This assessment must be accompanied by a surveillance protocol.

Some countries, including developing countries, may not conduct extensive BSE surveillance because of a lack of resources or for other reasons; such countries are placed in the undetermined BSE-risk category. They will still be able to trade commodities listed in the safe-commodity category.

The use of the word “risk” itself is somewhat deceiving, Dr. Thiermann says. “With any other disease, we don’t castigate a country completely if they have it, we just make sure they’re doing the right things,” he says. “BSE took a track of its own, more confusing and alarming than it should have been.”

But the new guidelines should provide some relief for U.S. cattle producers on that front. “The new guidance set forth by OIE will provide a fair framework for trade to be void of so many unnecessary questions about the prevalence and level of risk of BSE,” Mr. Slack says. “I hope it will help put the almost nonexistent risk of BSE in proper perspective with more likely risks to animal and public health.”

Animal-welfare guidelines
The subject of animal welfare was first introduced for the OIE’s consideration in 2001. “There’s a close link between animal health and animal welfare,” Dr. Thiermann says. “Last year we adopted some guiding principles. As a follow-up, we set up specific standards in four areas: sea transport, land transport, slaughter and killing animals for disease control. We will continue in these and other areas.”

Dr. Thiermann says their animal-welfare guidelines will not have the legal teeth that the disease standards do. “An agreement in the WTO says that OIE is the standard-setting body for animal health,” he says. “If something is strictly a welfare issue that cannot be linked to animal health, WTO doesn’t say that our standards must be followed.”

Animal welfare is an area where the U.S. is already on the leading edge. “It is important to remember the makeup of OIE: 167 countries, most of which are considered ‘developing’ countries,” Mr. Slack says. “This is an area that the U.S. would be considered ‘advanced’; thus, established guidelines, regulations and laws in our country likely far surpass anything the OIE might establish.”

But animal welfare is an issue of growing concern with consumers, who are beginning to demand some basic principles, and the OIE wants to monitor that area. “It’s been said before  —   we are part of a global community,” Mr. Slack says. “And so it is imperative that, assuming we want to market animals and animal products globally, we are engaged with activities occurring on the global stage. The OIE should be a part of the vocabulary of anyone engaged in animal agriculture in the 21st century.”