Animal health experts: US ag needs to be prepared for disease outbreaks

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pigs in barn
(Farm and Dairy file photo)

From COVID-19 to foot-and-mouth disease to African swine fever, infectious diseases are nothing new, for humans or for livestock. For centuries, they’ve been a consistent issue for farmers and agriculture as a whole. That doesn’t mean we’ve got them all figured out.

Even as Pennsylvania State University planned an Emerging Animal Infectious Diseases Conference in spring of 2020, a global pandemic broke out. Events, including the conference, were canceled or rescheduled.

As with human infectious diseases, there are things that can be done to prevent and address disease outbreaks in animals — for livestock, biosecurity plans, making sure livestock are traceable and treating, vaccinating or depopulating sick animals can help. But the U.S. livestock industry isn’t as prepared as it could be.

“Biosecurity is an area, I firmly believe, in the cattle industry, is lacking,” said Kevin Brightbill, Pennsylvania’s state veterinarian, in a Dec. 1 session of Pennsylvania State University’s rescheduled Emerging Animal Infectious Diseases Conference. “We need to prioritize biosecurity.”

At the conference, which ran Nov. 29 through Dec. 1, speakers discussed current disease threats for the livestock industry, potential impacts of outbreaks and ways that farmers, researchers, state and federal agencies and the agriculture industry as a whole can prepare for or prevent outbreaks.

Diseases

African swine fever, foot-and-mouth disease and avian influenza are three major diseases of concern these days, and three of the diseases speakers at the conference focused on as current threats. African swine fever has not yet been found in the U.S., but has spread to countries including Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. So far, there is no vaccine or treatment.

Some diseases, like foot-and-mouth disease, have been around for a while, but may be a higher risk now than they used to be because of how much more global industries and economies are.

“The diseases have long existed, but what has changed is the world which these pathogens share with us,” said Peter Fernandez, of PJF AgroStrategies Consulting, a former senior executive with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Service.

Diseases that are carried and spread by insects could also be a greater risk to some areas than they used to be, as warming temperatures allow some to move further north than they used to.

Impact

The economic impact of something like an African swine fever or highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreak would be severe. On a local level, diseases that lead to livestock losses can bring higher food prices and disrupt the food supply chain, said Dustin Pendall, of Kansas State University’s Department of Agricultural Economics.

On the other side, some outbreaks could lead to massive drops in food prices, if an industry loses access to export markets. For example, if the U.S. had an African swine fever outbreak, Pendall said, the industry would like see about a 50% decline in prices, based on the assumption that the U.S. industry would likely lose access to export markets for a certain amount of time.

If that disruption in access continued for too long, it could lead to less pork production and less demand for feed. And if pork prices dropped, leading more consumers to choose pork for meat, then prices for other types of meat could drop as well.

The estimated cost for the U.S. to recover from an African swine fever outbreak would be $13 billion, said Robin Holland, head of the diagnostic services section of the USDA’s Foreign Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory, and the cost for a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak would be $100 billion.

“We need to be better prepared for these diseases,” Pendall said. “[African swine fever] is knocking on our door. [Highly pathogenic avian influenza] is spreading … so it’s maybe not if, but when.”

Things like risk assessments and planning exercises that simulate what an animal disease response could look like are both ways to prepare, he said.

Outreach

There is also a lot that can be done at the farm level to prepare for or prevent serious outbreaks. Biosecurity plans and making sure that livestock are traceable, through things like RFID tags, can help. But it can be tricky to get people on board with those concepts, especially because they cost time and money.

“Agriculture is a blend of science and civics,” said Russell Redding, Pennsylvania agriculture secretary. While research and science to understand infectious animal diseases are important, so is education and outreach to farmers and other people involved.

Making sure that people have a common understanding of what biosecurity and related terms mean, in definition and in practice, is important, said Suresh Kuchipudi, of Penn State’s Animal Diagnostic Lab. And in summaries of breakout sessions at the conference, speakers suggested that making the economic case for being ready for outbreaks could help get more farmers on board.

Speakers also said biosecurity is a lot to put entirely on farmers. Educating other people who might be on farms at some point — like feed mills, maintenance companies and others — could help support farmers who are trying to keep their farms biosecure.

It’s also important, they said, to emphasize that these practices aren’t just about foreign animal diseases, like African swine fever. They can also help manage or prevent diseases that are already in the U.S., or in their state.

“An example that we try to set in Pennsylvania is to be proactive, rather than reactive. I think the two major take homes is to be invested in our preparedness … and then be intentional and proactive in how we want to understand these threats, but also approach the mitigation,” Kuchipudi said.

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