Foreign Animal Disease Poses Growing Threat to U.S. Agriculture

03:53PM Feb 25, 2020
Young Pigs
( National Pork Board and the Pork Checkoff )

Despite improved biosecurity protocols, transboundary diseases such as African swine fever (ASF) pose an increasingly significant threat to U.S. agriculture, the food system and the American population that relies on it for their health and livelihoods. On Tuesday, the Farm Foundation hosted a forum to discuss agricultural biosecurity with Alan Rudolph, vice president of Research at Colorado State University; Cassandra Jones, associate professor at Kansas State University; and Dan Kovich, director of science and technology at the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC).

“The increasing frequency of occurrence of known diseases, as well as threats from emerging infectious diseases that could dramatically threaten our country, demands increased attention to enhanced agricultural biodefense,” Rudolph wrote.

Although awareness and planning to improve response to infectious disease outbreaks has increased, experts said gaps remain. Despite best efforts, Rudolph said that a lack of coordination linking research and technology development across human and animal investments in biosecurity still exists.

If there is one message that Kovich hopes the swine industry takes home from today’s forum, it’s that there are a lot of people looking into agricultural biosecurity and devoting resources to decrease this growing threat. 

“There’s still a lot more that we can do and need to do,” Kovich said. “When it comes to biosecurity in general, the question remains, what can we do to prevent the next thing that’s coming? And the thing after that?”

Feed supply chain assessment
The feed supply chain has been making headlines as research continues to prove the ability of viruses to be transmitted through feed. Jones said although this is not the most likely route of disease entry into the U.S., it can quickly spread disease if it gets into the U.S. 

To be able to continue studying how viruses spread in feed, continued and additional support is needed. Researchers also need more access to controlled research facilities. 

“We need more access to those control facilities so we can do research faster, but we also need research and access to naturally contaminated environments,” she said. “It's really when the epidemiology and those controlled research projects come together that we can find our best information.”

On Feb. 20, NPPC and 30 state pork producer associations asked Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to take additional measures to protect the U.S. pork industry from ASF by using Perdue’s authority under the Animal Health Protection Act to restrict imports of organic soy products from ASF-positive countries to further safeguard our animals and prevent an outbreak that would have devastating, far-reaching economic consequences.

“This is a risk that is definitely worth preventing,” Kovich said.

Border protection and infrastructure
A full complement of agricultural inspectors is still needed, Kovich added. Currently, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has a shortfall of about 700 people. 

Senate Bill 2107, the Protecting American Food and Agriculture Act of 2019, passed both houses and authorizes staffing to fill that gap over several years. Kovich said as they move into appropriations in DC, NPPC is going to make sure the money's there, too.

“[U.S. Customs and Border Protection] are at the front lines at the borders, seaports and airports, checking people coming in to make sure that they're not intentionally or unintentionally bringing in contraband product,” Kovich said. “We need to make sure we have enough inspectors and technicians, enough of the Beagle Brigade to be fully equipped and that will, of course, protect against all swine disease, livestock disease, plant disease and even promote public health.”

In addition to organic soybean meal imports and more agricultural inspectors at the borders, NPPC has been focusing more broadly on things like infrastructure spending.

“For example, having more truck washes available could be dealt with through infrastructure across the board and things like that will certainly help us prevent African swine fever, but also better prepare us to weather any storm that comes down,” Kovich said.

It comes down to crosstalk
Our country’s ability to respond to disease outbreaks really won't be fortified until you actually consider the crosstalk between the environment, plants, animals and humans, Rudolph said. And that’s starting to be recognized in legislative activity around One Health bills.

“An ecosystem approach to a pathogen is really the solution that we need to start working on and having 14 U.S. government agencies fractured in their approach to this won't work in fighting these pathogens,” Rudolph said. “We need to set up more crosstalk and investment.”

At Colorado State University, Rudolph says they’ve been setting up mixed ecosystems in containment that include plants, animals, vectors and hosts, water and soil. 

“When you consider a disease like African swine fever, you have to consider all of that. Where is it at in the food in the feed population? Where is it at in the animal population? How long does it persist in the environment and soil and water?” Rudolph asked.

They are setting up Chinese wet markets inside containment to understand how Coronaviruses move across species and animals or how that spillover event could take place, he said. 

“Obviously the coronavirus situation is complicating things across the economy globally, not just in agriculture,” Kovich said. “There are some opportunities there to highlight better protection, which helps combat all threats.”

Will all the attention on coronaviruses take away focus from ASF?

“ASF prevention still remains a top priority of NPPC, the Feds, everyone,” Kovich said. “We can’t lose focus on ASF.”

But he said it’s important to keep looking for new and novel ways to address emerging transboundary diseases.

“We want to keep our eye on the ball when it comes to specific diseases. But are there new tools, techniques that can more broadly help us protect against a variety of animal health threats?” he said.

More from Farm Journal’s PORK:
NPPC Applauds House Passage of Ag Inspectors Bill

Agricultural Groups Urge Approval of CBP Funding Bill

Pork Industry Needs Additional ASF-Prevention Measures