It's been nearly five months since the nation's top 14 pork-producing states test drove their crisis response plans to see if they could effectively respond to and mitigate an African swine fever outbreak. Thankfully the industry has not had to put practice to play since then, but the drill has put pork producers on their toes and continuing to ask questions.
"When you think about what it would mean if we had 30 operations and it was for real, how quickly people's resolve to do good, basic stuff, basically every single day, how quickly that's going to change," says Heidi Vittetoe, co-owner of JWV Pork, based in Washington County, Iowa. "The other thing was we did the exercise in September and in September, it's really nice out and it's not hard to do good biosecurity in September. On the other hand, if you got a foot of snow or you have your barns froze shut and every other thing, it will be very hard to do biosecurity right."
Months prior to the exercise led by the USDA, JWV Pork began amplifying their own biosecurity efforts, establishing better clean/dirty lines, securing ports of entry into barns and cleaning and disinfecting trailers between loads. However, Vittetoe says even those initiatives were challenging at times.
"These are simple things, but I did not anticipate how hard it would be, especially with a fear factor going up, like ASF is a real deal," Vittetoe says. "Why wouldn't people do the stuff we were asking them to?"
The pork production team ran into issues such as contract growers bringing kids and dogs into barns to do chores and getting in and out of trucks, tracking manure from one building into another. Some didn't think they had room in the barn to put in a clean/dirty line, while others didn't know where the farm boundaries should be for a line of separation from off-farm traffic. If barns are locked, where do you keep the keys to enter barns?
Those are just some of the questions Vittetoe's team addressed before the four-day exercise this past fall, however the pressing question she has received since the drill from her contract growers has been if something happens, will we get paid?
"The only way that people get paid in the pig industry in general, forget ASF, is when the person who owns the pigs has revenue from the pigs that they can use to pay, so it would seem evident that good biosecurity, maintaining your barn orders is a really key way to assure that we don't have the disease and so you can maintain a stream of payments that everyone is concerned about," Vittetoe says.
However, she cautions producers to be mindful of the segmentation of the industry as contract growers may not see themselves as part of the risk for introducing a foreign animal disease in the chain of production.
"To mitigate that risk, the best thing that you can do is cooperate with the biosecurity protocols," Vittetoe says. "Cooperate with keeping your barns locked and those sorts of things because there isn't a 'we' and 'they' in the swine industry. If we get ASF, we're all 'we.'"
Bigger doesn't mean all biosecurity addressed
Before the four-day drill, Ian Levis, Operations and Vet Services manager for Seaboard Foods of Iowa, thought his team had a good handle on keeping track of movements on/off site. It wasn't until the exercise that they started to consider some of the equipment that is used on-site, including grounds maintenance. For example, Levis soon realized that the same contractor who mows for the site in the exercise, mows at six or seven other sites within Seaboard's organization, in addition to their feed mill and potentially other producers' sites.
"I think it's one of the areas that we as producers have to hold ourselves accountable for and hold our toll mills, our suppliers accountable for," Levis says. "There are a lot of touches on the farm that no one thinks about, even when you're in a system that you think is pretty biosecure."
Levis says all of those touches need to be addressed, because that information will be needed for the epidemiological investigation during an outbreak. The ability to produce that information will be directly tied to how quickly state animal health officials can potentially clear your site or other sites.
Another question that came up during the exercise was if you are cleaning a site after an FAD, how do you dispose of manure and clean the pit? Are there chemicals that can be applied to pits that will inactivate virus in the manure? These questions came up in addition to what each state allows for depopulation and disposal methods.
Finally, Levis says the exercise was the first time 14 states, producers and industry allies had to play together.
"There had not necessarily been a lot of interaction in the past with all parties at the same time. We got through the fourth day and every state had a different set of testing requirements, different set of samples, different number of samples they wanted collected on a week out from movement. Some states said three days," Levis says. "It's not just large companies, there are a lot of people moving pigs from state to state."
Missing connection points
Pete Thomas, director of health services for Iowa Select Farms, started preparing his team for the exercise the Sunday night before with a conference call, which he says helped visualize the drill more realistically.
"I think it really kind of gave everybody in our system, you know, people who thought they probably had nothing to do with this, whether it's IT or maybe a sow farm completely unrelated, it gave them an opportunity to be involved," Thomas says.
Wrapping your head around everything that goes on during a week, much less a 72-hour minimum hold was challenging, Thomas says, but something that needed to be done.
"I think that one of the most critical pieces, regarding if we have an African swine fever break, is the ability to do accurate and timely epidemiology investigations within your own system," Thomas says. "There are two reasons why it's absolutely critical. No 1, if we have it in a site, how long is it going to take to spread to other sites? If it has spread to one or two other sites before we realized it, we still have an opportunity to shut it down — if we realize where all the dangerous contacts are that had touched that site — the quicker we can identify those and not let something go that we didn't recognize, the more opportunity we have to minimize the spread in our system or other systems and the better chance we have to actually shut this disease down rather than live with it and spread to other portions, like China has."
Developing an epidemiology plan not only identifies all the people/processes that touch your farm, but also prioritizes high-risk, medium-risk and low-risk touches. The load crew may be a low risk, but Thomas encourages producers to ask who is all on that crew and where else have they been?
"There's always these things you don't realize and some of those connections are probably the most critical connections because they're not our sites with our managers that are more than likely doing things the right way," Thomas says. "These are the things that people have not had training on or biosecurity process protocol, so thinking through all those things, but some of those missing connection points might be even more dangerous than we realize."
The Iowa Select team is now looking at bonus or incentive programs for those load crews, drivers and independent contractors who keep strict biosecurity protocols. They're also examining ways to keep more records automated such as entry and exit of live animals, entry of animal products, collection of mortalities, entry of regular employees and history of any international travel. They are also testing out GPS and geofencing for tracking movement as well as an app on phones to register employees automatically.
"If we sit here and expect the state or the USDA is just going to do my epidemiological investigation for me, you're wrong," Thomas says. "They're expecting you to give them the information, but they're going to be overwhelmed within a matter of an hour. You've got all the information they're going to have to try to extract the heck out of you. I think everybody's got to take that responsibility serious and be prepared to take that on, if they do break."