UPU Allows Fruit Flies Among Mailable Animals

Biomedical researchers will be able to send flies of the Drosophilidae family, otherwise known as the 3-millimeter common fruit fly, to other countries via mail as of May 1, thanks to a Jan. 24 ruling by the Universal Postal Union's Postal Operations Council.

However, fruit flies still cannot be sent through the mail for other purposes, such as pet food for consumers who have reptiles. Such commercially used flies commonly are ordered via mail-order catalogs and Web sites.

The flies also must be enclosed in properly constructed boxes to avoid any danger to postal employees or customers.

The UPU Convention and Regulations currently forbids mailing most live insects among UPU members. For scientific purposes, bees, leeches, silkworms and parasites were admitted in the international postal network for years. Other animals could be admitted in domestic mail if the postal regulations of the country concerned authorized it.

A need to address the international mailing of fruit flies by the scientific community was identified two years ago by Kevin Cook, co-director of the Bloomington Drosophilia Stock Center, a nonprofit organization housed in the biology department of Indiana University in Bloomington.

The center mailed 140,000 samples of fruit flies — about 40 percent to overseas labs — in 2004 to scientists. The center fills online orders through its Web site and maintains lists of users.

After working with the U.S. Postal Service for more than a year, a final proposal from Cook and the USPS was sent to the State Department — which represents the USPS at the postal union — several months before the UPU Congress convened last year in Bucharest, Romania. The proposal explained the importance of allowing these flies in the postal network (All rules in the USPS' international mail manual are based on UPU rules.).

The worldwide scientific community using these flies also contacted postal officials in several countries to explain the importance of adopting this proposal at the UPU Congress. A proposal was approved by the UPU member countries.

The new Convention and Regulations take effect Jan. 1, 2006, but scientists were eager to use the international mails to exchange the flies as early as possible. The flies are used for biomedical and genetic research for Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease, heart diseases and various forms of cancer. They are exchanged among more than 1,500 institutions such as universities and research laboratories.

The UPU's Postal Operations Council considered the proposal at its meeting in Bern, Switzerland, this week and amended its letter-post regulations to admit the flies in the international mail system as early as May 1. The regulations are binding on the 190 UPU member countries.

Cook said the flies had been sent for decades.

“People have been mailing, collaborating and exchanging fruit flies for research purposes since 1908,” he said. “Nobody thought there was anything wrong with it.”

He learned otherwise about two years ago, after U.S. postal inspectors returned a fly shipment destined for an overseas location.

“We had read the rules before all of this happened, and we thought we were in the clear,” Cook said, “but we went back and read the rules and decided maybe there was something to the rule.”

Cook consulted immediately with federal officials to try to change the rule, which he feared could jeopardize the center's growing work. But Cook said he continued to ship the flies to overseas labs.

Cook said the new rule means “it is going to make collaborating with scientists in other countries a lot easier. If the average scientist takes a box of flies to the local post office today and tries to mail it, the [postal employee] at the desk will probably not let him mail the package. Now, we have a rule we can point to that says this is legal.”

Melissa Campanelli covers postal news, CRM and database marketing for DM News and DMNews.com. To keep up with the latest developments in these areas, subscribe to our daily and weekly e-mail newsletters by visiting www.dmnews.com/newsletters

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