What does “Vaccination for Life” mean for intercontinental live animal trade?

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  July-August 2013:

Dutch state secretary of economic affairs Sharon Dijksma did not directly address intercontinental live animal transport in introducing her “Vaccination for Life” initiative to the Dutch Parliament.   But Dijksma noted that “Vaccination for Life” has already been endorsed in principle by the Animal Health Quadrilateral Group,  a biosecurity advisory body including governmental representatives from the U.S.,  Canada, Australia and New Zealand. 

This may hint that Australian exporters of live sheep,  cattle,  and goats to the Middle East and Indonesia view “Vaccination for Life” as favorable to their industry––or maybe not.  Meeting just once a year,  the Animal Health Quadrilateral Group reviews the shared biosecurity concerns of all four nations’ agricultural export and import sectors.  All four nations have significant frozen carcass export industries,  competing globally for market share.  Only Australia currently has a large intercontinental live animal export industry.

Conversely,  New Zealand has been a major  intercontinental live animal exporting nation in the past,  and Canada in 2012 resumed live animal exports to Bahrain,  after a 10-year suspension that followed the discovery of mad cow disease in a Canadian herd.

The Netherlands is presently involved in intercontinental live animal transport only to the extent of exporting breeding animals and semen.  The European Union as a whole is not much more involved in intercontinental live animal transport.  Live animals raised in Europe tend to stay within Europe.

But,  because EU standards are by default the international standards for commerce in animals and animal byproducts,  the precepts of “Vaccination for Life” could eventually govern trade in animals and byproducts worldwide.  

This would markedly reduce the numbers of animals who are culled for disease control not only in Europe,  but wherever there are animal product and byproduct export industries.  

Most of the present commerce involves frozen carcasses and hides.   But live animals are exported to the Middle East from many other parts of the world,  for a variety of intertwined reasons.  One is the seasonal demand for animals to be slaughtered by male heads of household at the annual Feast of Atonement,  also known as the Eid.  Another is that the scarcity of reliable refrigeration in much of the Middle East contributes to a continued strong consumer preference for locally and recently slaughtered meat.  

In addition,  there is widespread skepticism in parts of the Middle East that non-Muslims abroad can be trusted to kill animals according to the halal standards prescribed by Islam––though undercover slaughterhouse investigations,  mostly produced by Animals Australia,   have repeatedly found that halal requirements are often not met locally,  either. 

Finally,  some Middle Eastern governments may throw up obstacles to frozen carcass imports to protect the jobs of slaughterhouse workers.

Ships incubate disease 

Importing live animals,  however,  amplifies the risk of accidentally importing disease.  While pathogens may also be imported with hides and carcasses,  combining live animals from multiple different sources aboard a ship means that if even one animal is carrying a highly contagious disease,  the disease may incubate and spread throughout the cargo.  Depending on the source nation and the destination of the cargo,  animals may be closely confined together on shipboard for several days to several weeks.  Under the stress of transport,  the animals tend to be exceptionally vulnerable to infection.  Disease outbreaks and deaths aboard intercontinental livestock transport vessels occur often. 

Destination countries may refuse to allow animals believed to be diseased to land.  Such refusals have led to international incidents,  and at least twice brought suspensions of live exports from Australia to the destination regions. 

In the first such case,  the Cormo Express in August 2003 hauled 57,937 sheep to  Kuwait,  where they were to be unloaded and trucked to Saudi Arabia.  But the sheep were refused entry to Kuwait because some had developed a stress-related herpes infection called scabby mouth disease.  After no other nation would accept the sheep,  the Australian government repurchased the consignment from the Saudi buyer and donated them to Eritrea,  along with a substantial sum to cover the cost of killing them and giving away their meat.  By the time the sheep were all unloaded,  5,681 had died in transit.

The episode was echoed when Bahrain in August 2012 rejected a cargo of 22,000 Australian sheep,  also purportedly due to scabby mouth disease.  The transporter sought unsuccessfully to unload the sheep in Kuwait instead,  tried again without success in Bahrain,  and finally left them in Karachi,  Pakistan.  There,  after six weeks of impoundment,  the sheep were declared unfit for sale and were crudely massacred.

If “Vaccination for Life” becomes international policy,  accepted in the Middle East as well as in the parts of the world where live transport is less common,  animals shipped alive could be vaccinated against whatever diseases of concern might erupt where they are raised, and might receive boosters before transport.  This might markedly reduce deaths on shipboard,  and might prevent refusals of shipments containing diseased animals.

The live transport industry might then operate with fewer disruptions;  but most of the disruptions of live transport from Australia in recent years have resulted from the Animals Australia video exposés,  not because of disease outbreaks.  

Animals Australia investigator Lyn White,  a former police officer,  has since 2003 repeatedly directed undercover video operations that have documented mistreatment of Australian sheep and cattle,  as well as other livestock,  at facilities in Egypt,  Kuwait, Bahrain,  Oman,  the United Arab Emirates,  Qatar,  Jordan,  and Indonesia.  Australia has repeatedly suspended live exports to the nations whose slaughter industries have been exposed,   but has later allowed the exports to resume upon receiving promises of reform.

Unclear is whether vaccinating animals would be more profitable for live exporters than the present system of non-vaccination combined with culling in response to disease outbreaks.   

Most of the major voices in world agribusiness lobbied for the present “stamping out” disease control policy when it was introduced in 1991,  partly because culling infected animals was seen as less costly than practicing routine preventive vaccination,  if this had been mandated instead.  

But the introduction of “DIVA” vaccines,  which allow inspectors to distinguish infected animals from those who have been vaccinated,  has changed the economic calculus,  and may have changed the political alignments.              

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