The current spread of avian influenza throughout the U.S. and its impact on trade may have focused attention on the virus and the international trade rules relating to animal diseases, but the virus’ impact on the global poultry market, and the rules governing trade, are not new.

Twenty-four outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza were recorded between 1959 and mid-2003, and all were relatively short-lived. However, the highly pathogenic virus strain that emerged in Korea in December 2003 had, by early 2004, been confirmed in Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam.

Its spread continued throughout Southeast Asia and by 2006, the virus had been confirmed in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

Hundreds of millions of chickens either died or were culled as a result of the virus, poultry meat production was reduced and trade patterns have shifted. The virus has continued to hit poultry meat production and countries' ability to export or willingness to import.

Role of the OIE

The risk of spreading disease through trade in animals and animal products has long been recognized, and in 1924 the Office International des Epizooties (OIE) was established to fight disease and protect trade at a global level. The 180 member body changed its name to the World Organisation for Animal Health in 2003, but kept its original acronym.

The OIE is an intergovernmental organization responsible for animal health worldwide, and recognized as a reference organization by the World Trade Organization (WTO).

To help facilitate trade without spreading disease, the OIE has a number of objectives.

It aims to ensure transparency in the global disease situation, with its members reporting diseases detected within their territories. This information is then disseminated to allow any preventive actions to be taken.

It collects, analyses and disseminates veterinary scientific information to improve disease control and eradication methods. Guidelines are prepared by its 284 collaborating centers and reference laboratories around the globe.

The OIE also works to encourage international solidarity in the control of animal diseases. It provides technical support to member countries requesting assistance with disease control and eradication operations, including diseases transmissible to humans.

The OIE safeguards world trade by publishing health standards for international trade in animals and animal products. It develops rules that member countries can use to protect themselves from the introduction of diseases and pathogens, without setting up unjustified sanitary barriers. The main normative works produced by the OIE are the Terrestrial Animal Health Code, the Manual of Diagnostic Tests and Vaccines for Terrestrial Animals, the Aquatic Animal Health Code and the Manual of Diagnostic Tests for Aquatic Animals.


OIE standards are prepared by elected specialist commissions and by working groups bring together internationally renowned scientists, most of whom are experts within the network of collaborating centers and reference laboratories.

Standard setting not an easy process

For any international system to work there needs to be agreement between participants during the elaboration of standards and on their application.

The difficulties in achieving this are perhaps illustrated by a recent statement from the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

It notes that the U.S. actively participates in helping to draft animal health inspection standards proposed by the OIE, and is a member of the OIE’s Regional Commission for the Americas.

It continues that, generally, if a country has concerns with a particular draft standard and supports those concerns with sound technical information, the pertinent specialist commission will revise that standard accordingly, and present the revised draft for adoption at the OIE’s General Session in May. In the event that a country’s concerns regarding a draft standard are not taken into account, that country may refuse to support the standard when it comes up for adoption at the General Session.

While it is in the interest of the U.S. to support adoption of international standards – and to participate actively and fully in their development – it should be recognized that the U.S. position on a specific draft standard would depend on the acceptability and technical merit of the final draft.

Need for adherence

Even where a standard has been accepted by the OIE and whichever of its member countries find it acceptable, there is no guarantee that the standard will be applied in the event of a disease outbreak that is seen, via trade, as a threat to herds or flocks, and the OIE cannot force its member countries to stick to its rules.

Earlier this month, the International Poultry Council (IPC) wrote to the OIE to encourage its members to abide by guidelines when imposing trade restrictions on poultry and breeding stock in response to avian influenza outbreaks, adding that many countries were imposing unwarranted trade restrictions that go against the OIE’s recommendations.

It further pointed out that those countries that are members of the OIE “have agreed to procedures for the conduct of trade in breeding stock, live poultry, and poultry meat, including compartmentalization, zoning and regionalization, for managing safe trade in the event of notifiable avian influenza outbreaks in exporting countries.”