OIE Sets New Standards on Mad Cow Risk
Author: David Evans
The OIE said it wanted to simplify the way countries are judged to be at risk from the deadly cattle disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), and devised a new three-tier system to replace the current five risk categories.
"There will now be three categories. A classification will depend on the risk in each country," OIE Director General Bernard Vallat told a press conference.
OIE guidelines, which come into immediate effect, are non-binding on its 167 members, but are often used by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) for settling cross border trading disputes involving animal health issues.
The human form of mad cow, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), is fatal and believed to be caused by eating infected meat. About 150 cases have been reported around the world.
The OIE said the new categories would put more emphasis on the relative safety of beef exports rather than purely the number of mad cow cases a country had registered.
"The important thing for us is to focus on risk, not whether a country has had one or 10 cases," Alex Thiermann, president of the OIE's International Animal Health Code, added.
Vallat said the three country categories would be known as "negligible risk", "controlled risk" and "undetermined risk".
The first category is for countries with no BSE history and the second for those that have had or may have had cases. Both require risk assessments and strict surveillance. Extra controls would be imposed on second category countries.
All other countries, with no risk or surveillance measures, would be in a third category with limited trading possibilities.
OIE officials have said Britain, for example, where BSE emerged in the 1980s and went on to devastate the beef industry, was in the highest risk category of the old five-tier system.
But under the new classification, due to its long history of risk awareness and robust surveillance, it could be placed in the middle one, potentially freeing up certain beef exports.
RED MEAT EXCEPTION
The OIE already recommends that certain cattle products such as milk and dairy produce, hides and skins, embryos and semen are free to be traded regardless of a country's classification.
It has now added deboned red meat to the list, Vallat said.
"There is a list of products that present no risks. That now includes skeletal muscle meat under certain conditions," he said.
Countries would be allowed to export deboned red meat from cattle under 30 months old regardless of their mad cow status.
The OIE said it had clearly defined what could be classed as skeletal muscle meat for free trade. Apart from the under-30-month rule and deboning, animals had to have undergone ante- and post-mortem inspections and measures must be in place to ensure no contamination with other riskier animal parts.
The added restrictions on red meat trading followed concerns expressed by some countries, including Japan, over fully liberating deboned beef trade.
Japan imposed a ban on US beef in December 2003 following the discovery of the first case of mad cow, although Tokyo is considering resuming imports from younger cattle.
Before the ban, Japan was the biggest market for US beef exporters, taking $1.4 billion a year.
Officials have said that Japan is not obliged to follow all the OIE guidelines, but hoped the new rules would help free up trade between the two countries.