Producers and consumers alike had an up-close look at the need for farm biosecurity during the avian flu outbreak that killed roughly 50 million birds beginning in December 2014. Two years later, a private tech firm called BioWALL, which helped Midwest farmers recover from that devastating event, is expanding its proprietary chlorine dioxide sterilant across ag sectors.
It’s also focused on risk-management training to prevent future outbreaks in poultry, hogs and produce.
“We bring both the large-scale ability to apply the gas and a lot of expertise around microbiological control and kill that’s much more strict than what the industry requires,” explains John Mason, chief science officer at Albany, N.Y.-based BioWALL, an acronym that refers to its mission of protecting water, air, land and life. Its technology is the only EPA-registered sterilant for broad-spectrum decontamination of porous and non-porous surfaces.
Even as more consumers seek assurance that food is being produced safely and reliably, recent data suggest food contamination is a lingering concern. Annually, roughly one in six Americans get sick from a foodborne illness, 128,000 must go to the hospital for related treatment and 3,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
(View From The Top: Q & A with Steve Oesterle, Chief Executive Officer, BioWALL)
Preventive measures appear to be working: Nearly 30,000 fewer cases of foodborne illness are projected this year compared to 2015 levels thanks to inspections by the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), according to a USDA budget summary. FSIS is budgeted to receive more than $992 million in fiscal year 2017 for inspections at the international, federal and state levels.
Attention to the basics is also invaluable, adds Danelle Bickett-Weddle, associate director of the Center for Food Security and Public Health at Iowa State University.
“Companies are developing broad spectrum disinfectants and using new technologies to improve vaccines,” Bickett-Weddle says. “But it really comes down to the two-legged critters, i.e. the people taking the care of the four-legged critters by consistently doing their job every day.”
Eliminate And Prevent. The persistence of disease in the supply chain presents an opportunity for private-sector companies such as BioWALL to collaborate with producers around safe food production.
Its customers include GSC Agribusiness in Carroll, Iowa. The operation includes a farrow-to-finish hog operation that finishes 200,000 hogs annually and also features four sow units. It has a feed mill with a trucking fleet and a grain elevator with storage leased to a local grain cooperative.
“Both control and elimination have been on the minds of every pork producer since porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) in the early 1990s and even more so with the introduction of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDv),” says Shaun McGinn, director of operations. “On-farm viral load is a fact, and producers manage for it with on-farm biosecurity, washing, disinfecting and individual strategies. If we can prove BioWALL effective in the management plan, it could eliminate the uses of vaccinations, reduce clinical breaks and change current strategies to control viral load.”
The farm is trying out BioWALL technology in some of its barns and participating in trials. McGinn points to the company’s track record providing intensive cleaning for hospitals as a reason his business decided to collaborate. The new tech adds a layer to existing cleaning measures such as cleaning all alleyways daily, washing and disinfecting farrowing crates and following standard operating procedures for cleaning. Operation-wide, cleaning requires 10 to 16 man-hours per week.
How It Works. Extreme and rapid cleanliness is critical in hospitals, where BioWALL can trace its origins. The founders of the company initially had federal funding for research at UC Berkeley’s Children’s Research Hospital.
“We thought we were doing things on hospital sterilization,” Mason recalls. “Then on Oct. 15, 2001, we were summoned to Washington, D.C. It turned out we were doing research for a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) project on biohazard elimination. We spent the next six to seven years dealing with a variety of issues with biological contamination, tough-to-kill stuff like anthrax, weapons and bio-agents.”
The firm’s three-part sterilization process results in a million-fold reduction of all microorganisms. It uses a unit that makes the proprietary chlorine dioxide gas; an emitter that takes the gas and distributes it through a room or barn; and material that encapsulates the building so the gas stays inside the facility. “Ideally, encapsulation takes four to six hours per building,” Mason says. “The actual treatment cycle is a minimum of three hours, typically more in eight to 12 range. Then we clear the building and we’re done.”
Chlorine dioxide has no residual toxicity, meaning it won’t damage livestock or fruits and vegetables in storage.
“We can walk right back in and you could eat right off surfaces,” says Steve Oesterle, BioWALL’s CEO. He points to contamination prevention opportunities in the future, such as safeguarding trucks that take fresh food to market.
On a broader level, BioWALL is concerned about a growing lack of biodiversity on farm operations, which they say opens the door to widespread contamination. Small farms that included crops and livestock have often transitioned into big operations that specialize in corn and soybeans only or dairy only.
“Viral protection is something we see becoming more and more important,” Mason says. “This is the way we feed our planet today. It’s what makes America competitive in the world ag market. That’s what it’s really about: to be able to help protect that place, we need a broader spectrum, a lower overall residual toxicity and ways to control pathogens.”