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Livestock diseases a global threat worth monitoring

By Don “Doc” Sanders

This month’s column is more serious than most. If you’re looking for entertainment and my usual wild stories, you may want to skip this one. But this column is a must-read, if you raise livestock and/or care about the American food supply (and if you’re like me, you like to eat). Livestock disease outbreaks are occurring every day somewhere in the world. These diseases, if not contained, could threaten our food supply and lifestyle in a way that most Americans are too naïve to fathom.

It will pay you to be aware of this situation, so you can be prepared. For starters, here are a few facts that escape most Americans.

  • Many diseases are zoonotic. This means they can spread from animals to humans, or vice versa.
  • An example is avian influenza, which can pass from birds to humans. Remember the avian flu outbreak a couple years ago? More than five million turkeys and chickens had to be euthanized when the flu virus swept through flocks throughout the U.S.
  • Other animal diseases do not spread to humans. But they can cause huge economic losses to farmers and the entire food supply chain, from transportation to processing, to institutional food programs, to retail grocery stores and restaurants.
  • You may remember when in 2013 PED (Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea) killed more than seven million baby pigs in the U.S. — not counting millions more in other countries such as China. Now you know why the price of bacon rose.
  • It was discovered that virus-carrying swine feed ingredients from China caused this PED outbreak. Feed has been suspected of carrying diseases around the world for years, but this was a first when it was proven.

You may think I’m raising alarm over old news. But several potential disease outbreaks are on the horizon, deeply concerning U.S. health authorities. These include African Swine Fever (ASF), Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) and a new Avian Influenza outbreak. Several diseases could directly threaten Americans, while some have popped up in countries where American companies do business.

African Swine Fever is a disease that’s new to American interests. It has cropped up in China with over 16 outbreaks reported recently. Apparently, it was transported from Russia across the border to a pig farm in northern Heilongjiang province. Nobody can explain how it happened — at least no one who will admit to knowing anything about it.

The Chinese pig farmer recognized he had sick hogs, so he loaded them on a truck and transported them to the closest packing plant, 1,100 miles south. Talk about a recipe for spreading the disease! When he arrived at the packing plant most of the pigs were dead. No one has said if the pigs were disposed of or processed. It’s anyone’s guess.

Since that time, 15 more ASF outbreaks have occurred in China. These outbreaks seemed unrelated, as they popped up in many locations. American veterinary scientists have volunteered to assist the Chinese government with control of the epidemic. I was involved with making contacts, but Chinese authorities declined our assistance and have remained tight-lipped since the earliest reports of the disease outbreak.

Even though American officials are concerned about ASF, they have deeper worries. They are on edge about FMD — not if FMD will occur in the U.S. but when it will occur!

Foot and Mouth Disease (not to be confused with Foot in Mouth Disease, with which I’m afflicted) was eradicated from the U.S. in 1929. Now FMD is persistent in several South American countries, Europe and many Third World countries that don’t have the resources to establish disease containment or eradication plans. Such plans inconvenience American tourists, but such measures can prevent disease from crossing borders.

The threat of FMD will affect more than farmers. Every American citizen will feel the inconvenience of efforts to control the disease. Humans aren’t susceptible to either of these diseases but can carry either of them on their clothes or in illicit food products purchased in a country with these viruses.

Ten-mile zones around disease outbreaks will be quarantined. Police, sheriff’s deputies and National Guard will be mobilized to ensure the integrity of the quarantine zones.

Dairy farms will be especially encumbered by the restrictions, because milk must be picked up every day. Milk trucks will have to be disinfected upon entering the zone to pick up a dairy farm’s milk and disinfected once again when leaving the farm with the milk.

What makes this especially difficult for dairy farms is that they will need to plan for a “clean” zone equipped with disinfection equipment for milk pickup. The other option is to construct a neutral zone where trucks can load without entering the dairy farm.

Most dairy farms today are struggling to survive. Because of the depth of their economic woes, very few dairymen have developed a plan in the event of a quarantine. Without a plan, they could have to wait days, or perhaps weeks, before they could market their milk. Since dairies harvest milk every day, a dairyman will be put in the situation of having to dump his cows’ milk until he has developed a USDA-approved written plan and acquired disinfecting equipment.

Because of their economic circumstances, some dairymen will not be inclined to make the extra effort that a quarantine will require. They will be more inclined to sell their herds. I understand their emotions, as being a dairyman is extremely difficult these days.

Selling their herds won’t be easy either, because it could take weeks for the dairymen to get a permit to move the cows off the farm. Without a USDA-approved quarantine plan, these dairymen will be in limbo.

My advice to all livestock owners is to discuss and plan a course of action with a veterinarian who is familiar with requirements, so they can continue operating in the wake of a catastrophic disease such as FMD. But most veterinarians aren’t yet up to speed on the requirements.

The 2013 PED outbreak in baby pigs is just a mini version of what could happen in a major disease outbreak. PED killed baby pigs only. Even then, swine operations had pickup truck loads of carcasses to dispose of.

Contingency plans are needed for disposal of animal carcasses in the event of widespread animal deaths or mass euthanasia. Suffice it to say, officials with Homeland Security and the USDA have been researching plans for wholesale disposal of livestock by burial, composting, cremation and alkali digestors.

Which brings to mind the Louisiana official I met at a meeting in Amarillo on animal carcass disposal methods during an epidemic disease outbreak (yes, I live a glamorous life). He told me that in the Pelican state they have their own 100% efficient disposal method. With a slow drawl he explained, “We drag the carcasses down to the river bank and let the alligators clean them up. We just need a knife to let the air out of them before the alligators will touch them.”

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