Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Infectious Disease and Biosecurity: Towards protecting the US national beef supply

It’s the simple things that help most

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchWhen it comes to protecting this nation’s food supply there are a broad array of governmental and industry sector protocols that include, among other things a system of FDA regulatory requirements, state and federal veterinary inspection services, and uniquely structured industry specific biosecurity programs. This infrastructure provides a wide and reasonably effective -albeit incomplete- protective net against many potential emerging dangerous infectious diseases- human and animal- getting introduce into our food system intentionally or not.

For example, the swine and poultry industry have pursued tight biosecurity and biocontainment systems- literally tailoring production systems based on these themes- whereas the beef feedlot industry having its own unique set of challenges don’t implement similar levels of biocontainment, biosecurity, and security.

Because of differences in specific business models including details such as animal distribution and collection points to unique economic demands, the present agricultural infrastructure does not currently function with broadly consistent and uniform methodologies and specific industry standards vary.

This particular study titled "Biocontainment, biosecurity, and security in beef feedyards"* focuses on reviewing the present state of affairs at cattle feedyards, a “bottleneck area” loaded with opportunistic potential for infectious disease to spread with possibly devastating results. This particular study, based on a layered (differentiated by an operations size) survey offers a unique insight into the present problems, potential dangers, and possible solutions that the beef feedyard needs to be aware of. It sampled a fairly representative swath of feedyard operations in five of the seven top beef producing Central Plains states in the US (Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas). Together they were feeding 9,230,000 (77%) of the total cattle on feed in US feedyards.

The authors explain “A feedyard is a population-dense environment with numerous opportunities for disease transmission.” Cattle operations necessarily have, at some point towards the end of the animal production chain, a population “gathering” usually for final finishing and fattening before being sent to slaughter (other less common -yet perhaps feasible- alternative husbandry techniques would provide interesting discussion for another post.)

The need to dispassionately acknowledge deficiencies, identify problems, and explore any potential infectious risks regarding the parameters of biocontainment, biosecurity, and security (BBS) in the feedyard cattle industry is an important step towards achieving effective strategies toward finding solutions and mitigating against these dangers. This is especially important in today’s increasingly global agricultural trade that is raising the risk of unintentionally spreading infectious disease. Add to this, the ever present Damocles sword of international as well as home grown terrorism (i.e.; PETA ) and the pot indeed seems ready to boil over.

Overall, they do list several deficiencies along with solid common sense proposals that could provide significant BBS protection. For example, the authors note that segregation of sick cattle, using different equipment for food and manure, washing instruments after use, cleaning the unloading facility, having separate unloading and treatment facilities, securing foodstuffs, securing the property perimeter, wearing protective shoe coverings, and better controlling visitors, among other things could help reduce the danger for disease that include Bovine Viral Diarrhea, Eschericha coli 0157, and Salmonella.

Not surprisingly, the survey noted, that smaller operations had more deficiencies than larger ones indicating that economic factors need to be taken into account when implementing improvements. The authors acknowledge that further studies are needed to more clearly define the efficacy that some recommended protocols might realistically offer in a feedyard environment – such as wearing protective shoe coverings (though swine operations have documented a positive correlation)- as well as the economic impacts some plans might have on operational costs- especially for smaller outfits.

Though one might wonder why some of these items are not already being done, it is important to remember that there are innumerable variables that affect operational safety that aren’t obvious to us or industry owners, managers, and employees in the midst of production. At the samestime, we need to take a step back from the forest so to speak and move away from a “that’s how we’ve always done things” stance. The cattle industry, at least in this study, appears very open to the idea.

This is where industry veterinarians can make huge impacts towards improving feedyard conditions through effective oversight, training, and education. Studies like this one puts force and evidence behind their efforts and helps make things better for all the humans and animals involved.

* Brandt, AW, Sanderson, MW, DeGroot, BD, et al. Biocontainment, biosecurity, and security practices in beef feedyards. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2008; 232:262-269

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