The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has announced amendments to regulations concerning importing horses. The objective is to develop standards for establishing permanent, privately-owned quarantine facilities. Currently there are three quarantine facilities operated by the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), but these facilities, widely dispersed geographically, are being stretched by rising imports that have dramatically increased demand for the quarantine services. APHIS quarantine facilities are located in Newburgh, NY, Miami, FL and Los Angeles, CA.
All horses brought into the United States are required to pass through one of the three quarantine facilities. The time each horse spends quarantined depends upon the horse's country of origin. For instance, horses arriving from countries where any one of a number of equine diseases (African Horse Sickness, Foot and Mouth Disease, Contagious Equine Metritis, etc.) is prevalent may require longer quarantine at the APHIS facility. Horses arriving from countries where Contagious Equine Metritis (CEM) is prevalent require additional quarantine in facilities approved for CEM treatment and testing.
The USDA's proposed amendments were announced in December, 2006, and the public comment period ended in February. But in a bizarre twist of fate, the amendments were announced coincident with an outbreak of Equine Herpes Virus (EHV-1) that resulted in the deaths of six horses in Florida. The horse thought to be the source of the virus had been released from the USDA quarantine facility in Newburgh, NY.
On November 24, 2006 the Newburgh facility received a shipment of 15 horses from Germany. One of the horses developed a fever and a staff veterinarian treated the horse. There were no further symptoms of illness. The 15 horses, which had been quarantined together, were released on November 27, and they were mingled with other horses in shipments to several states. Vans carrying the horses also made numerous stops in other states to pick up horses or drop horses off.
One of the horses from Germany was shipped to California, and died of EHV-1 shortly after arriving there. Five of the horses from Germany were shipped to Florida, where 12 horses eventually contracted EHV-1 and six horses died from the disease or were euthanized. Horses that had been mingled with the horses from Germany wound up in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Florida. The only horses that developed EHV-1 were in Florida and in California.
Responses to the outbreak were swift. In every case, voluntary quarantines of horses exposed to the original 15 horses from Germany were initiated. The Florida Division of Animal Industry quarantined 10 facilities throughout the state, curtailing competition in the Winter Equestrian Festival. Once local veterinarians recognized the nature of the problem confronting them, they were able to get ahead of the crisis and minimize its impact. The EHV-1 outbreak was tragic, but it illuminated the complexity of the issues surrounding USDA's intention to allow the creation of private quarantine facilities for imported horses.
Proponents of the USDA's plans recognize the economic importance of rising equine imports. However, as the EHV-1 outbreak proved, numerous safeguards will be required in order to ensure that facilities are appropriately staffed, and that they are situated geographically so as to minimize exposure of imported horses to resident herds near the facilities.
According to the USDA, privately-owned facilities "would have to be approved by APHIS and maintain the same level of biological security standards as other permanent quarantine facilities operated by APHIS. In addition, at least one APHIS representative would be required to be onsite to oversee the care of all horses in quarantine during normal working hours."
The American Horse Council (AHC) is a proponent of permanent, privately-owned quarantine facilities. AHC President James Hickey says that these facilities would benefit the equine industry as well as horses. "There are only three import facilities now, and at certain times of the year they get a back-up. If we could have more facilities, it would greatly assist owners, and the horses wouldn't have to be shipped such long distances after quarantine."
"The USDA will be very involved in overseeing and actually operating these facilities," he says, and that is a key reason AHC is supporting the concept, even as there's no way of knowing where these facilities might be built. "It's a fairly expensive thing to put in, and there's not a list of six people" planning to develop facilities, Hickey says. But he knows that there have been serious discussions from people in Maryland and Kentucky about setting up quarantine facilities.
All horses entering the United States are required to have valid health certificates signed by practicing veterinarians in the country from which the horses have been shipped. The veterinarians certify that:
- The horse has been in the country for a period of at least 60 days immediately preceding the date of shipment to the United States;
- The horse has been inspected and found free of any contagious diseases "insofar as can be determined," and has not been exposed to any contagious disease in the past 60 days;
- The horse has not been vaccinated with a live or attenuated vaccine within the immediate past two weeks;
- The horse has not been exposed to African Horse Sickness, dourine, glanders, Equine Infectious Anemia (EIA), Contagious Equine Metritis (CEM), or any of several other diseases in the 60 days prior to shipment to the United States;
- The horse has not been in a country where CEM is prevalent, and has not been in contact—through breeding or otherwise—with horses from countries where CEM is prevalent, for at least 12 months;
- The horse has been inspected and been found free of parasites.
Horses that have been competing in several countries prior to being exported to the United States require numerous health certificates.
Beyond the paper trail required for the horses coming into the United States, there should be requirements for transporting horses from the port of entry to the quarantine facility, to ensure that imported horses are not exposed to resident equine populations. The AHC expressed concerns to the USDA about vagueness in the proposed regulations regarding the distance quarantine facilities can be from ports of entry. In a letter to Dr. Freeda Isaac, APHIS staff veterinarian, Hickey noted that "as written, the guidelines as to where a quarantine facility may be located vis-à-vis the port of entry are vague. Though we recognize the Departments' reasoning for not specifying how far a facility can be located from a port of entry, we are concerned with your decision to leave the approval up to the Administrator without any minimal guidelines on the distance of the facility to the port of entry." He said that the lack of standards could cause future problems. "For example, if there is a quarantine facility within a state with no viable airport to ship the horse, and the horse is refused entry at the quarantine facility upon arrival, complications could arise when transporting the horse interstate to have it shipped out of the country."
In addition, Hickey expressed concern about the lack of guidance in the regulations about the distance a quarantine facility should be from premises where horses or cattle are kept. The AHC requested a requirement of at least a half a mile.
Now that the public comment period has ended, the USDA will develop final regulations. The permanent facilities operate mainly for horses that are going to live in the United States. Horses that come here for specific events, such as races or major shows, can come through different facilities. Hickey says that horses "can come in for 90 days. That's already in place."
In 2006, almost 4,000 horses entered the United States through the Newburgh facility. The fact that only one horse managed to slip through the process with an undetected illness is a testament to the effectiveness of the regulations governing the USDA facilities, as well as the thoroughness with which the regulations are enforced. The challenge for the USDA and those seeking to develop private facilities will be to maintain the USDA's standards and protocols with ruthless efficiency.