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Mad cow, bird flu: veterinary response is improving

Top agency for safety in the meat and livestock trade says: the response to mad-cow disease and H5N1 bird flu among farm animals has improved, thanks to common guidelines and better veterinary surveillance.

The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) said its International Committee, meeting here until Friday, "confirmed the world situation for highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 (has) stabilised" but urged continued vigilance. OIE Director General Bernard Vallat told a press conference that countries where there had been renewed outbreaks of bird flu were now "well prepared and react swiftly." He pointed to Hungary and Japan as countries that had responded well to recent outbreaks, but noted that bird flu remained endemic in Egypt, Indonesia and Nigeria.

"The virus is currently stable" as far as the risk for humans is concerned, said Vallat. "There is a risk that it may mutate, but it hasn't happened yet." As for mad-cow disease, which is officially called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the committee simplified a safety list, now officially recognising countries that have a "negligible risk" or "controlled risk" of this ailment. Argentina, Australia and New Zealand come under this first category, while the United States and Canada -- which had suffered restrictions on their beef and cattle exports after BSE surfaced in their countries in 2003 - come under the second, as does Brazil.

There is also a third category, of "undetermined risk." Vallat said the new categories would help to settle trade frictions by enabling partners to speak a common technical language. "There is now a much more precise framework for negotiations," he said. The OIE session also approved the lists of countries or zones recognised as being "free" from foot-and-mouth disease and two other cattle disease, rinderpest and contagious bovine pleuropneumonia. (