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Setting Health and Safety Standards for the World

15 November 2011, at 12:00a.m.

International standards for food safety and animal health and welfare can be and often are contentious issues, writes ThePoultrySite Editor in Chief, Chris Harris.

Exporting countries feel that the standards and regulations are too restrictive, while importing countries are calling for the maximum protection.

Arguments over the way international standards are implemented have at times led to trade disputes and even trade wars.

At the centre of the argument often stands the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), which is responsible for setting and monitoring the standards.

Speaking at the recent World Pork Conference in Bonn Germany, Dr Alejandro Thiermann, the president of the Terrestrial Animal Health Code Commission at the OIE, said that in setting the standards the OIE receives a great amount of pressure from producers, consumers and NGOs.

But the role of the organisation was to ensure ethics and public health protection, through objective science.

He said the role of the OIE has grown from the initial focus of animal health to setting standards for food safety and animal welfare as well.

The latest fifth strategic plan for the organisation aims to improve animal health and welfare worldwide through transparency of the world animal health situation, collecting and publishing veterinary and scientific reports on animal health issues, protection measures and controls and by ensuring the safety of international trade in animals and their products under the mandate of the World Trade Organisation.

Dr Thiermann said that the OIE aims to ensure food security, which is a key public health concern, from both a quantitative and qualitative perspective and having healthy animals helps guarantee food security and food safety. To ensure a global supply of safe food the world's veterinary services play a key role, he said.

"For a successful implementation of the OIE international standards and an international recognition of their benefits, it is essential to have credible Veterinary Services," said Dr Thiermann.

He told the conference that the global animal, meat and food industries are now facing further challenges from emerging infectious diseases.

"There is at least one new disease each year," he said.

"And 75 per cent of these are zoonotic and this is increasing."

He warned that as many of the diseases are transboundary and there are 21 billion food animals produced to feed a global population of 6 billion the situation is likely to become even more challenging as the need for more food will increase the number of food animals by 50 per cent by 2020.

There are concerns about how new diseases can cross from wild animals to domestic animals and from animals to humans.

He said that diseases are not always contained on a national or even regional level and this is why now there has been a conscious shift away from the concept that only countries free from disease can trade to one of focusing on a risk based analysis.

"This serves as an incentive to open up markets while working towards disease eradication," said Dr Thiermann.

"And this in particular has shown benefits for developing countries."

However, he said that this approach of risk based analysis of the situation also reduces the pressures on governments to declare the country disease free before it actually is.

"The goal of the OIE is to maximise animal health and trade benefits, while minimising negative effects on other populations," he said.

"Human, animal and environmental factors must therefore be taken into account."

He added that there has been a paradigm shift from a strict emphasis on country freedom to risk based recommendations and the separation of specific animal sub-populations with different health status.

Even with the risk based approach, the ultimate goal continues to be the eradication of the disease from a territory and eventually the world.

Dr Thiermann said the new risk based approach can be put into practice by either zoning or compartmentalisation.

Zoning applies to an animal sub-population defined primarily on a geographical basis, while compartmentalisation applies to an animal sub-population defined primarily by management and husbandry practices relating to biosecurity.

"In practice, spatial considerations and good management are important in the application of both concepts," he said.

Dr Thiermann said that containment zones, as seen in the outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease in Paraguay allows the country to determine areas where the disease cannot spread to be declared disease free.

Through compartmentalisation, compartments in the country are free to trade where the rest of the country is not.

However, he said that for compartmentalisation to be a success there has to be a credible veterinary service, responsible for audits and certification and compartments supported by a robust biosecurity plan, which must be based on the known epidemiology of the disease or diseases.

He said there is a clear role of private and public sector, with clear awareness and involvement of stakeholders and the compartments have to be negotiated with trading partners during "peace time".

Dr Thiermann said that the major problems facing the OIE in maintaining disease controls and trade at the same time come about when there is a failure of Member countries to fully implement OIE recommendation through their legislation.

Problems are also encountered when importing countries require "disease freedom" rather than OIE's "safe trade recommendations" and when there is failure to communicate and influence public perception before a crisis.

He said the OIE and the global agriculture and food industry needs veterinary services with the ability to detect notifiable and emerging diseases, and provide credible veterinary certification.

He said there is a need for an improvement of the private-public partnership with change in roles and responsibilities and veterinary services need a communication strategy to increase awareness and consumer confidence.

"There is clear indication by the international community to make trade fair and safe," Dr Thiermann concluded.

"But this will have to be matched by a global commitment and political will to implement measures based on these international standards."

November 2011