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IT would be hard to find a silver lining in concerns surrounding avian influenza but, if there is one, it is that they have led the European Union (eu) to reconsider its position on imports of captive live birds. The European Commission announced last week that a new Regulation has been agreed laying down strict conditions for imports of captive live birds such as parrots and macaws, whereby only countries or regions which have already been approved to export live commercial poultry will be allowed to export captive live birds to the eu. Significantly, the new Regulation will also mean that member states will not be allowed to import birds caught in the wild. Although primarily intended to protect animal health, the new rules should also improve the welfare of imported birds and have been welcomed by the bva and other organisations which have pressed for the trade in birds caught in the wild to be brought to an end (see pp 67-68 of this issue).
Imports of captive live birds into the eu have been subject to a temporary ban since October 2005, when the European Commission banned all such imports as a preventive measure against highly pathogenic h5n1 avian influenza, pending a reassessment of the rules. It asked the Animal Health and Welfare Panel of the European Food Safety Authority (efsa) to conduct a scientific assessment of the animal health and welfare risks associated with the import of captive live birds, and the efsa issued its opinion in October last year. The efsa's assessment was not confined to avian influenza, but also considered other diseases including Newcastle disease and chlamydiosis. It concluded that the need to continue to import wild birds into the eu would have to be considered carefully because of concerns about animal health and welfare. It noted that, although the probability of infectious diseases being imported with captive wild bird species varied according to the species of bird and the likelihood of infection in captivity, the probability in some cases was high. It made a number of recommendations aimed at reducing the risk of exotic animal diseases entering the eu through the import of wild birds other than poultry, including: improvements in checks, traceability and quality control in countries outside the eu; continued harmonisation and improvements in testing methods; and improved containment and biosecurity measures to avoid cross-contamination during transport.
With regard to animal welfare, the efsa noted that there was ‘generally a high mortality rate and widespread suffering among imported wild birds’ and that ‘significant improvements would need to be made in all aspects along the captivity-export pathway, particularly concerning conditions of capture, care and transport’. It pointed out that it would be preferable to breed birds in captivity with high welfare standards rather than import birds captured in the wild, which are often subject to poor conditions, and that, in certain scenarios, the importation of hatching eggs rather than birds would be preferable to reduce animal suffering.
Following the efsa's report, the European Commission extended the temporary ban on all imports to allow it time to decide on appropriate measures, and the Regulation agreed last week represents the outcome of that process. The Regulation will come into force in a few weeks' time and start to apply from July 1. Only birds bred in captivity in approved breeding establishments in countries which are free of avian influenza and Newcastle disease will be allowed to enter the eu, and all imported birds will have to be individually identifiable by a leg ring or microchip. Tighter quarantine conditions will be imposed and, in addition, eu member states will be required to provide the European Commission with regular information on imports. All this is good news as far as the bva is concerned, as it has been pressing for controls to be improved for some time.
The bva published a position statement on imports of captive live birds last July. This drew attention to the distinction between imports of poultry and other birds and backed calls for imports of birds caught in the wild to be banned. The bva's position statement was adopted by the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe in October and it is gratifying that many of the concerns identified have now been addressed by the new legislation. To be effective, the new rules will have to be effectively applied by all member states, and this is an area to which attention must be devoted in the future. As well as helping to safeguard animal and human health, the new rules should help to resolve some of the ethical and animal welfare problems associated with international trade in wild birds. As the European Commission points out, by limiting the number of imported birds, it may also stimulate local breeding within the eu, which is a more appropriate way of meeting the requirements of the pet bird trade.