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With no 911, we need all-hazards approach to agricultural emergencies

During the 2019 Allen D. Leman Swine Conference, the veterinarian explored lessons learned from past emergency responses and what could happen if FMD struck a U.S. swine herd.

When there’s an emergency, whether that be a fire, flood, tornado or hurricane, you expect to see the state troopers, the National Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and more. It’s all hands-on deck, but when there’s an agricultural emergency who will show up?

“For an agricultural emergency response, the local authority isn’t really well-established everywhere and uniformly. Exactly who has that authority to command the response varies from state-to-state, so it’s not always carried out at the same level of efficiency during an emergency,” says Marie Culhane, a member of the Secure Food Systems Team at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine. The team’s mission is to conduct science-based risk assessments, research, outreach and engagement to prepare for animal disease emergencies and support continuity of business during an emergency. They work closely with veterinarians at the Minnesota Board of Animal Health and the Office of Emergency Preparedness and Response for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Together, they believe in cross-commodity, multi-agency coordination to have an efficient, rapid response.

No matter what the threat is to U.S. agriculture, Culhane says it’s important to have an “all-hazards” plan in place with a multi-level, multi-agency response than can maintain continuity of business for our farmers and producers. During the 2019 Allen D. Leman Swine Conference, the veterinarian explored lessons learned from past emergency responses, the present situation and what could happen if foot-and-mouth disease struck a U.S. swine herd.

The largest, most-costly animal disease response thus far in U.S. history was the highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreak in 2015. In Minnesota alone, 109 premises with more than 9 million birds, mostly turkeys, were infected. However, there were also 156 affected (aka not known to be infected) premises with 21 million birds, premises that were trapped in a control area with those infected premises, that had the potential to be negatively impacted. In total, 264 commercial poultry operations were managed during that outbreak and Culhane says that took a lot of resources.

“To take care of that outbreak in the U.S., over $1 billion was spent in indemnity and disease control. Those funds were spent to protect the multi-billion-dollar collective poultry industry, which is still alive and thriving today,” Culhane says.

While the 2015 HPAI outbreak is a great case study for us to use as we build new strategies for national preparedness and response for animal agriculture production, we can also learn from disasters that happened to food and crops both within and outside our agricultural circle.

For example, in 1979, when the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant malfunctioned, the Pennsylvania Department of Health, out of caution, issued a halt on the regional drinking of milk although there was no science supporting the idea that milk was contaminated. Grocery stores in surrounding states made a point to advertise that the milk they were selling did not originate from Pennsylvania, in order to safeguard their businesses from the event.

In 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Russia occurred while plant operators were preparing for a one-time shutdown to perform routine maintenance. The power surge caused an immense explosion, releasing radiation into the atmosphere and cutting off the flow of coolant into the reactor, which resulted in a second, even greater explosion. Nearly 52,000 kilometers of land used for agricultural production were directly affected.

More recently, in 2011 following a major earthquake in Japan, a 15-meter tsunami disabled the power supply, causing a nuclear accident in March of that year. The disaster heavily impacted Japan’s agricultural production, with 80,000 farms experiencing contamination from the nuclear disaster.

“So how do you deal with these animal disease outbreaks or food-security threats?” Culhane says. “You want to have good collaborations in place to respond to any agricultural emergency.”

Culhane explains her point by presenting a hypothetical FMD outbreak and emphasizing the importance of having collaborations established that extend across different species and commodities to properly respond to FMD.

For example, if FMD is confirmed in a North Carolina swine herd today, a control area will be set up. This area could cover up to three counties in the state and over 2,400 km. Within the control area there will be the infected swine premises, the swine premises that had contact with the infected farm, and around 150 swine premises identified as at-risk. The USDA, with industry support, will call for an immediate national movement standstill. The index case herd will be depopulated, and international notifications will be made.

Culhane says if the above scenario were to occur, the U.S. swine industry will not only be fielding questions from others in the pork industry about movement, but from other livestock groups as well. After all, interstate movements occur daily, and it is estimated that 71% of pigs in the United States are grown up to market weight at a different location from where they are born. Questions will arise, such as: Will Midwest states such as Minnesota and Iowa allow North Carolina to move pigs into their state to be sold or processed? Will states with large cattle populations such as Nebraska and South Dakota insist other states prohibit North Carolina pigs from moving into their states?

To establish an all-hazards response plan, Culhane says the first element is preparedness and an incident command structure needs to be in place that includes industry.

“We’re very strong advocates of that in Minnesota, both at the university and within our state agencies, that our incident response includes the agriculture industries,” Culhane says. “You cannot proceed with a rapid respond to an emergency and bring in the producers as an afterthought or in passing. You need to bring the producers in at the beginning.”

Preparedness and response plans need to ensure all supplies are on hand, personnel are trained, and depopulation contractors have been contacted.

Next an all-hazards response plan needs to focus on the response plan itself. What will the quarantine and movement controls be and how will movement standstills be conducted? How will disease investigations be done and where will samples be sent for timely diagnostics and results? Finally, how will depopulation and disposal be handled?

Culhane says one of the most important aspects of an all-hazards response plan is continuity of business planning to minimize the unintended negative effects of disease and disease response, while achieving response goals. COB planning needs to cover how to control or eradicate the disease without “destroying” the industry.

“We want them to be able to have some type of continuity of business based on the best science available for the risks involved in their different movements, in their different functions every day,” Culhane says. “Because what we want to do is provide safe wholesome food to our consumers.”

For more information: “Building an all-hazards agricultural emergency response system to maintain business continuity and promote the sustainable supply of food and agricultural products,” Marie Culhane, Carol Cardona, Timothy J. Goldsmith, Kaitlyn St. Charles, Greg Suskovic, Beth Thompson & Mike Starkey, Cogent Food & Agriculture (2018), 4: 1550907.

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