Article, 100th Anniversary

WOAH Standards: building a global governance of animal health

WOAH standards-veterinarian observing some animals for health checks
WOAH was created 100 years ago to preserve animal health through international cooperation. Its standards, first adopted in 1968, have become a reference for safe and transparent international trade, and for Members to base their policies and regulations on animal health, welfare and veterinary public health. These standards are updated every year, through a science-based, democratic process, and their implementation is now monitored through the Observatory.

The origins of WOAH date back to 1921, with a shipload of zebus travelling from India to Brazil. The zebus transited at the Belgian port of Antwerp, where they were quarantined with cattle from the United States, before being forwarded by rail to various European slaughterhouses. The zebus were infected with rinderpest, a deadly disease that quickly spread through the other imported cattle, all over Europe. The disease was already well-known in this region and others, where it had killed millions of cattle in the past, causing devastation in farms.  

This situation was mitigated by quick action from national veterinary services, but it confirmed the need for international cooperation on disease prevention procedures. At the 1921 Paris Conference, 43 countries and territories decided to establish an Office International des Epizooties. The OIE [former acronym of WOAH] was born on 25 January 1924. 

1968: the first Code to regulate trade of animals and their products  

In 1960, the Organisation launched the International Veterinary Quarantine Operation to progressively harmonise international exchanges of animals and animal commodities. After years of unprecedented efforts to facilitate standardisation, including multiple worldwide conferences, the International Zoosanitary Code was published in 1968, providing the regulatory basis for safe international trade of terrestrial and aquatic animals and animal commodities.  

A science-based and democratic approach 

Nowadays, this first Code has evolved. It is now a fully developed system organised in four sets of publications, which provide international standards to monitor, detect and control more than 120 animal diseases, to improve animal welfare, veterinary public health and to strengthen Veterinary Services worldwide:  

  • The Terrestrial Code, first published in 1968 under the name of International Zoosanitary Code, provides standards for the prevention, early detection, reporting and control of pathogens in terrestrial animals.  
  • The Aquatic Code, introduced in 1995 to extend standards on disease prevention, early detection, reporting and control to amphibians, crustaceans, fish and molluscs. 

The development of WOAH Standards relies on the dedicated and comprehensive work of specialised committees and groups, based on scientific rigor and consensus among Members, following transparent and democratic adoption procedures.

Carlos Henrique Baqueta Fávaro, Brazilian Minister for Agriculture and Livestock.

Indeed, to remain relevant with the latest scientific and technological developments as well as with feedback from their implementation, WOAH Codes and Manuals are being regularly updated through a science-based and consultative process: revisions proposed to address countries’ needs are developed by experts, discussed with Members and key stakeholders, and finally adopted each year by the World Assembly of Delegates, where each Member has one vote. 

A reference for the World Trade Organization  

When Members vote for the adoption of Standards at WOAH’s annual General Session, they commit to translating them into their national legislation. The World Trade Organization (WTO) adopted the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary measures (SPS) in 1995, which encourages its members to base their sanitary measures relating to animal health and zoonoses on WOAH Standards.  

WOAH Standards, widely recognised and adopted by WTO Members, provide a robust foundation for harmonising regulations and ensuring the safety of international trade in animal products. By ensuring compliance with WOAH Standards, nations can effectively address trade concerns, harmonise regulations, and promote smoother trade flows while upholding high standards of animal health and safety.

Jean-Marie Paugam, WTO Deputy Director General.  

For Brazilian Minister of Agriculture and Livestock Carlos Henrique Baqueta Fávaro, “WOAH Standards, recognised by the WTO as a reference in animal health and zoonoses, bring security, impartiality, and equity to international trade of animals and their products, avoiding unnecessary trade barriers.” 

WOAH has indeed become WTO’s reference organisation, reflecting the importance of health measures to facilitate safe international trade of animals and their products. This collaboration between international organisations and Members goes beyond trade: for example, “as a founding partner of the Standards and Trade Development Facility (STDF), alongside FAO, WHO, the World Bank, and WTO, WOAH actively contributes to assisting developing nations in meeting international sanitary and phytosanitary standards and requirements. Concrete examples include initiatives in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and the Philippines to control the spread of African swine fever, projects in Mongolia to improve animal identification systems, and in Ethiopia to enhance SPS compliance for meat exports”, Jean-Marie Paugam added.  

Standards Animal Health_A male animal health inspector checking for signs of animal diseases in a slaughterhouse
Applying sanitary measures, an inspector checks carcasses for signs of disease in a slaughterhouse. Following WOAH Standards and recommendations on slaughter and trade is key to preventing the spread of diseases and ensuring food safety.  Photo: © WOAH/Amir Hossein Fadaee

An Observatory to monitor the implementation of standards 

WOAH acknowledges that while it is important to develop and publish international standards, these recommendations need to be effectively implemented at every international border, harbour, farm and anywhere veterinary services are being delivered in the world. In some countries, implementation can be challenged by many factors, including the lack of financial and human resources, or relevant infrastructure.  

In order to know where Members stand regarding the implementation of standards, WOAH Observatory was created to collect data and facts, and provide analyses. “WOAH Standards are the international reference in the areas of animal health, animal welfare and zoonoses. However, as with many international instruments, evidence on their actual uptake remains scarce. The Observatory is an ambitious project, largely unprecedented among international organisations, to bring transparency to the use of WOAH Standards”, said Marianna Karttunen, of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), that provided support and recommendations in the development of the Observatory.  

Following a testing phase, the WOAH Observatory published its first results in 2022. The programme is expected to reach full speed in 2025. Data is provided by Members and collected from external sources, then analysed to identify implementation gaps and provide recommendations to Members, while guiding WOAH capacity building activities and standard-setting process.  

“Other international organisations will be able to learn much from WOAH’s experience in setting up the Observatory. WOAH’s active participation in the Partnership of International Organisations for Effective International Rulemaking is therefore timely and very welcome”, Marianna Karttunen added.  

The Observatory is at the core of WOAH’s current digital transformation, in line with the principles of thoroughness, international cooperation and transparency that keep international standards still fully relevant today.  

Have you read?