Report: meeting of Secretary of Ag’s Advisory Comm. on Animal Health
July 20, 2014
June 30, 2014
The Secretary of Agriculture's Advisory Committee on Animal Health (SACAH) met in mid-June. The Committee exists to allow stake holders to provide input into the policy/regulation making process of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Veterinary Service. This is not easy because different segments of the livestock industry have very different priorities and concerns. A rule that for one species or aspect of the livestock industry is a necessity, can for another segment be overreaching and burdensome. Our Committee recommendations on the Interstate Animal Disease Traceability Rule that was enacted last year, helped make those rules much more manageable and still provide the traceability information essential to contain disease outbreaks.
The big issue that we discussed in this session is our national preparedness should Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) be introduced into this country. It will not be pretty because we are essentially not prepared and nearly defenseless. The Veterinary Service has a good plan but inadequate resources to implement that plan. In order to contain an outbreak of FMD in a timely manner, the disease needs to be diagnosed as early as possible. This is not what happened with Porcine Endemic Diarrhea (PED) and as a result PED spread across the country in just a matter of weeks. FMD is even more contagious than PED and there are 23 different varieties.
Recognizing which strain is involved is critical and requires that diagnostic laboratories are ready and prepared to do the correct tests; but we don't have many laboratories with trained personnel and the proper reagents. So timeliness of diagnosis is the first problem. The next thing will be to contain the spread by either slaughtering the infected herds or, preferably, conducting mass vaccinations. We have very little vaccine in reserve and no way to procure more quickly. There are no vaccine manufactures licensed to produce FMD vaccine in this country so we will need to order the vaccine from somewhere else. But those manufacturers do not keep large amounts of vaccine on hand and would have to make more from scratch. By then the FMD epidemic will have spread and probably infected deer and feral hogs as well.
It appears that we would most likely have a total mess on our hands. Our pork and beef exports will be immediately blocked, domestic prices will collapse, and we will be left trying to treat millions of sick animals. With time and vaccine we will be able to recover but it will be years before we are free of FMD and can resume meat exports.
Obviously it would be better to prevent the introduction of FMD in the first place but we are getting more vulnerable – not less. Africa, most of Asia, and a good part of South America has endemic FMD. With the ease of international travel, people traveling from those places could unintentionally cause an epidemic by bringing in an infected meat product. Then we have the risk of a terrorist intentionally introducing FMD. This would devastate a big portion of our economy. And then there is the risk of contacting FMD through international trade. So far we don't import fresh meat from countries with FMD but that may change as the big meat companies are pressuring our government to allow imports of beef from Brazil and Argentina. If we allow fresh meat imports from those countries we will be adding another totally unnecessary source of risk. A further consideration is that given the extent of integration with the beef and hog industries in Mexico and Canada, an infection in either of those countries would quickly become our problem too.
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This vulnerability is caused by a lack of money. Little by little the budget of the USDA Veterinary Service has been cut to the point that now about all they can do is make plans. The USDA veterinarians are dedicated and doing a good job with inadequate resource. I am sure they will work to their utmost to contain an outbreak of FMD, but if they don't have the right tools there is little that we, as consumers of their services, should expect. The main thing needed is the ability to keep large enough quantities of concentrated vaccine on hand. Nothing else will do and Congress needs to be made aware that this is a national security issue.
Another topic we discussed at the meeting was whether the routine feeding of antibiotics to livestock in confinement causes microbial resistance to antibiotics in humans. The routine feeding of antibiotics as a growth promoter is important for the livestock feeding industry but if you know anyone who has contacted MRSA, you also know that it is a major threat to human health. The research so far provides no clear cause and effect. We, who work routinely with livestock, should be particularly concerned because if the feeding of antibiotics to livestock is a source of the infection, we are most at risk. The fix that USDA is considering is to stop the over the counter sale of antibiotics and require a veterinary prescription. Denmark did this and the result is that more antibiotics are now used than before – so restricting over the counter sales is not a solution. We need clearer guidance from research before we start putting restrictions on antibiotic use, however, we need to resolve this issue soon. No one wants to be infected with MRSA or another disease resistant to treatment with antibiotics.
The final major topic discussed was the compact that USDA is negotiating with their counterpart in Canada. They are proposing to share information in a timely manner and respect each country's disease free zones if a Foreign Animal Disease is introduced in either country. We certainly do not want to restrict commerce but we need to be wary. As much as I respect Canadians we should not make our livestock industry dependent upon the efficacy of the Canadian veterinary service. After all, they certainly do not have a good track record in controlling Mad Cow Disease (BSE). I am also concerned that this proposed "compact" will be used as a template for agreements with other countries such as Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. Livestock producers need to pay attention to this particular issue as it unfolds.
We are in another election season, so it is an opportunity for all of you to remind the Congressional candidates that we don't need to add to our risk by importing meat from countries with endemic FMD and that being prepared to fight an FMD outbreak is a national security issue.