August 22, 2008

by Neil Clarkson

New Zealand biosecurity officials have yet to pin down a timeline for relaxing import standards for horses from Australia after that country's equine influenza (EI) outbreak.

Any relaxation of import requirements is increasingly looking like a Christmas present for New Zealand horse owners.

It appears any relaxation will be months away and may well ultimately coincide with guidelines from the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) which suggest a country can consider itself formally free of a disease 12 months after its last known case.

For Australia, that would be Christmas this year. The last known case was recorded last Christmas in Queensland.

Australia formally declared itself free of the disease on June 30, some six months earlier than the OIE general recommendation.

However, even if New Zealand does free up imports before Christmas, it is unlikely to be any time soon.

Any new import health standard for horses - which has yet to be drafted - requires a six-week public consultation period. Time would then be needed to review submissions before a provisional version is formally issued. This can then be finalised 10 days later.

While New Zealand now allows imports, horses are required to spend five weeks in quarantine - three weeks in Australia and two weeks here.

Limited quarantine facilities have shut out the sea-freight option, meaning horse owners have been using air freight.

The higher costs involved in air freight, together with the substantial costs around quarantine, have seen horse owners paying more than $10,000 - some four times more than the cost of the sea-freight option before the outbreak.

Biosecurity New Zealand spokeswoman Helen Keyes said the department had asked the Australian Veterinary Authority to provide supporting documentation following Australia's claim of freedom from equine influenza.

"We are currently assessing this information and different parties within MAFBNZ are involved with the assessment," she told Horsetalk.

These include the animal imports team, animal response team and risk analysis team.

"Once this internal review is finished, we will agree upon conditions of importation of horses from Australia.

Keyes said the conclusions of the assessment will set the basis for the new import health standard for horses from Australia.

"Therefore any change that will affect the new import health standard cannot be done before completion of the assessment.

"Given the procedure surrounding the issuing of import health standards, it is likely to take some time before the conditions applied at the border may change.

"This could well meet the World Animal Health Organisation (OIE) recommendation of 12 months freedom from EI before declaring a country free from the disease."

Keyes said Biosecurity New Zealand's intention is to put appropriate requirements in place to minimise any chance of introducing equine influenza here.

"The assessment of the current situation in Australia will determine what requirements the new import health standard for horses from Australia should include."