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The OIE – all carrot and no stick
  1. Josh Loeb

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The World Organisation for Animal Health – which confusingly goes by the acronym OIE – sets standards for controlling transboundary animal diseases but has no power to enforce those standards.

That isn’t a value judgement, just a description of reality. One can argue the toss about whether the OIE should be given ‘teeth’ but the fact is, it doesn’t have any – and it’s easy to see why that’s causing frustration.

For OIE members there are metaphorical carrots but no punishment for rule-breaking. Countries can become members, make promises (in bad faith), then repeatedly break them – all in the knowledge that the OIE will be unable or unwilling to take meaningful action.

This problem, if it is a problem, is highlighted by the rapid spread of African swine fever (ASF) around the world – precisely the type of disease that the OIE was set up to assist in combating.

Looking at the map on page 94 of this week’s Vet Record showing European countries that are officially (according to the OIE) affected by ASF. You will notice that one country in eastern Europe has remained miraculously impervious, even as outbreaks rage around it. That country is Belarus. Often described as Europe’s last dictatorship, Belarus has been blamed by ASF experts for repeated incursions of ASF across its western border and into the EU.

The OIE has suggested that whenever it becomes aware of rumours regarding ASF outbreaks in Belarus, it refers these to Belarus to determine whether they are true. This is akin to asking Russia to investigate the Salisbury nerve agent poisoning.

Unsurprisingly, when asked, Belarus has said that it is not ASF affected. The ex-Soviet dictatorship may be telling the truth, although this seems unlikely. It is perhaps significant that Belarus did notify the OIE about an outbreak in 2013 – after which it ceased sending such notifications.

This might seem like a saga about a country far away about which we know little. Yet it matters for the UK for the following reason. As a member of the EU, Poland – Belarus’s neighbour – has an open trade border with other members of the bloc. That includes (for the time being) the UK. Whether official consignments of goods or illegal ‘personal’ imports transported in people’s pockets, pork products can move quite freely into the UK from Poland and other ASF-affected countries in the east of the EU (see VR, 22 June 2019, vol 184, pp 749-751). Put simply, if it can get from Belarus into Poland, it can get from Poland into the UK.

The UK is already on ASF alert

The UK is already on ASF alert. Traces of the virus DNA were detected in samples of meat illegally being brought into Northern Ireland earlier this month. The virus can survive for lengthy periods in cooked meat. It only takes one infected ham sandwich to cause an outbreak, the most likely route being if the meat was to be eaten by another pig (which, given limited biosecurity on some farms, is far from impossible).

The OIE itself says that countries transparently sharing true information is ‘fundamental for establishing trust’.

The system relies on countries acting in good faith and the relevant veterinary authorities providing correct information about outbreaks as and when they become aware of them – but there is concern that this is open to abuse, meaning the official data showing which countries are affected, published by the OIE, may in turn be incomplete and inaccurate.

In fairness, the suspicions regarding Belarus have had consequences for the country in terms of international trade. The EU prohibits Belarus from exporting meat products, as do many other countries. But the virus does not respect trade borders.

There would be practical problems with giving the OIE an enforcement role. It’s not a police force. What is it supposed to do? Invade Belarus and take over its farming sector?

No, but what about expelling Belarus from the OIE? Or would that merely be counterproductive, hindering the fight against the disease?

A balance must be struck between engaging with troublesome regimes while not appeasing them and, in so doing, making a mockery of the OIE system.

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