The recent porcine epidemic diarrhea virus disease outbreak is a hot topic at the World Pork Expo. It is a foreign animal disease. It had never surfaced in the United States before. Fortunately, it causes no threat to human health. Well-prepared, rapidly presented scientific information on the disease avoided a major market disruption.
In short, we got lucky.
Other foreign animal diseases exist that are more serious threats. Four that could cause havoc are: Foot and mouth disease, Classical swine fever (cholera), African swine fever and Swine vesicular disease.
Two of the first steps to control such diseases, should they surface, are stopping all movement of livestock and euthanizing infected animals. Those steps sound easy. However, roughly a million hogs are on trucks every day. About half are moving from one stage of production to another. The other half are going to slaughter plants. At least 200,000 cattle are on trucks every day. About 125,000 are going to packing plants. Approaching 100,000 are bound for feedlots. The point-the U.S. livestock sector cannot have a movement stoppage for long.
States regulate interstate commerce. States closing borders could result in thousands of cattle and hogs sitting on semis at state borders. One need not stretch one's imagination far to envision a bad situation rapidly getting a lot worse.
That's only a piece of the background behind efforts to develop a quick response program to create a secure U.S. pork supply and provide business continuity for the pork industry in event of a foreign animal disease outbreak here. James Roth, an Iowa State University veterinarian, explained goals of the project at the World Pork Expo in Des Moines, Iowa. The effort is being funded by USDA and livestock industry groups.
Potential impacts are huge. As we learned with the BSE outbreak in 2003, meat exports dried up overnight. Coordinated recovery efforts took about eight years to return exports to pre BSE levels.
Roughly 25% of U.S. pork goes into export markets. Losing those exports would not only eliminate export revenue. It would also depress domestic prices resulting from dumping huge amounts of pork on the domestic market.
The researchers are developing response strategies for disease out breaks of different types and intensities.
"Suppose only one herd is infected," says Roth. "The first lines of defense are to stop all animal movement and stomp out the disease in that herd.
"Suppose the disease gets more widespread," he adds. "The strategy has to change. Hopefully, we would be working with a disease that poses no threat to humans. The focus could shift to processing infected animals through packing plants and moving the meat to human consumption. Obviously, doing that would take sound science, cooperation among all industry participants and most importantly a well-organized and effectively implemented communication effort to inform the public that the food supply remains safe. Doing so would be a huge undertaking.
Focus on biosecurity. "At the first sign of an outbreak, all players in the industry would need to implement enhanced biosecurity measures," stresses Roth.
Players would need to abide by all animal movement requirements and instructions put in place by state and federal animal health authorities. Those requirements need to be coordinated among various entities and states. Roughly 45 million hogs move across state lines from one phase of production to another during their life time. Those pigs and hogs all have to go somewhere. Going back where they came from may be a short-term option. But they cannot stay there long, before overcrowding occurs, which could make already bad herd health issues even worse.
What about vaccinations? "Vaccinations are part of the program," says Roth. "One hitch is 24 strains of foot and mouth disease exist. The trick is having enough of the right vaccine. That's a huge challenge."
The Bottom line. Foreign animal diseases can threaten the U.S. livestock industry. The time to be planning containment and eradication strategies is before any disease outbreaks occur.
Stopping all movement of livestock, while extent of the disease outbreak is being diagnosed and location determined, is a first step. But quarantining everything is a short-term fix. Livestock movement cannot be stopped long, or a bad problem will get worse.
Communication among all players and consumers is the most crucial element. That communication must be early in the process, accurate and based on sound science.