August 2007
From the State Vet's Office

Future Challenges

by Dr. Tony Frazier

I recently attended the third annual Agriculture Security Conference in Birmingham. This was an excellent conference sponsored by the UAB School of Public Health. There were many other cooperators involved, including the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, the Alabama Department of Public Health and Homeland Security.

As usual, there were a line-up of world class presentations about the importance of agriculture and the delicate balance that must exist to feed and clothe a growing population, not to mention the public health significance of some zoonotic diseases (diseases shared between animals and humans). The conference served as an exclamation point to a fact that I am well aware of — we must remain vigilant against events that could disrupt agriculture. These events include the resurgence of diseases like tuberculosis and brucellosis, highly pathogenic avian influenza or other foreign animal diseases, toxic substances in imported feeds of food (such as the recent case of melamine in wheat gluten), agroterrorism and natural disasters.

To drive home the significance of the challenges we face is the fact that last year (2006), we, the United States, became a net food importer. This means that we imported more food than we exported. To put that in simplest terms, we did not produce enough food to feed ourselves. This has a great deal to do with the globalization of everything nowadays and the global economy. It is certainly true that food can be produced more cheaply in other countries, but it seems a little (or maybe a lot) dangerous to become reliant upon other countries to produce so much of the food we consume. That leaves little room for error here in the United States when it comes to producing food.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the challenges we face comes in the form of natural disasters. Recently, Hurricane Katrina would have come to mind as it took a tremendous toll on cattle, poultry and other agricultural ventures in the Gulf Coastal area. Today we are very aware that drought can be even more devastating to agriculture. Most natural disasters result in some degree of depopulation, then later repopulating. It is in such times of stress and movement of animals that they may become more susceptible to disease or even bring a new disease into an area. It is important to use proven biosecurity practices during and after such events.

We in regulatory veterinary medicine guard against those challenges and events through a number of avenues.

First, we continually try to tighten our surveillance net by educating producers to notify us or their veterinarian if they have abnormal or unusual illnesses or large, unexplained die-offs. We encourage producers to notify someone if they have animals with central nervous system diseases, hemorrhagic diseases and vesicular diseases (blisters on lips, in mouth, on feet and udders). We work with other organizations to help educate about biosecurity and regulations we have in place concerning animal disease.

Second, we work with the local veterinarians to encourage reporting of any disease signs that could indicate a foreign animal disease. We depend on the local practitioner to involve us when something out of the ordinary raises a red flag. That does, however, emphasize the need for more food animal practitioners to help us guard against the next threat that may be just around the corner.

A third line of defense is our laboratory system. Most of our laboratory veterinarians have been trained in foreign animal disease pathology. In addition, we have the most modern equipment available. One example is machines that can detect a disease like avian influenza in a matter of hours, not days. Our laboratory personnel know how important their role is in the surveillance puzzle.

Finally, we have a dedicated field staff whose jobs are primarily disease surveillance. They are equipped with state-of-the-art equipment that would allow them to send digital photos to the laboratory to get an opinion long before tissue samples or a carcass could arrive at the lab. They also use tools such as quarantines and warnings to make sure the regulations we have in place to guard against disease are complied with.

Our system is not perfect — never will be, but we continue to tighten the surveillance net to keep animal agriculture unhampered by events we can prevent or at least minimize. With the world population expected to double in the next 50 years and the need for protein expected to double in the next 13 years, we do not have room for mistakes.