To Jerry Torrison, asking are we ready for a foreign animal disease in the U.S. swine industry is comparable to asking, can you play the piano?
“In some areas we're still playing Chopsticks, in some areas we're getting a little closer to Beethoven and Bach, but we're not at Lizst yet, for those of you who actually know how to play the piano, so we've got some work to do,” Torrison told the audience this week during his Morrison Lectureship presentation, “FADs, Are We Ready (Together)?” at the Allen D. Leman Swine Conference in St. Paul.
The senior vice president of animal health at Longhorn Vaccines and Diagnostics LLC and former professor at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine says his biggest concern is that an FAD will be widespread in the United States before its detected.
Referencing Mike Tyson’s famous quote before his 1997 fight with Evander Holyfield that “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” Torrison says he sees five potential punches or gaps if an FAD enters the U.S. pork supply chain.
If the industry thought the plant shutdowns during COVID-19 were long, Torrison says expect even longer closures, and nationwide rather than regional, during an FAD outbreak.
“That’s one concern, that the standstill is going to be a much bigger impact than what we think it is,” Torrison says. “The other thing that really gives me pause is what if it gets into a plant? We've been fortunate that we had all these disease drills, we know how to do that. Somebody goes and grabs the sample, runs it to a NAHLN [National Animal Health Laboratory Network] lab, tests it, it's not foot-and-mouth disease, may or may not be positive for Seneca Valley virus, but we ran the drill. We know how to do that, but we've never kind of taken it to the next step of, what if it is [positive] and how do we clean out a plant?”
While there are drafted plans in place for positive-infected meat harvest facilities and for those in contact premises in a free area and in a control area, Torrison questions how well those plans can be executed on a large scale.
“One of the requirements is that all the trucks that are there get cleaned and disinfected and approved by a regulatory official. So, there can be 170 trucks at that plant, and how do you do that? That has not been exercised yet that I know,” Torrison says. “And how long is that plant then going to be shuttered? You can close a plant but having spent some time in the breeding stock world, it’s easy to close a farm, how are you going to reopen it?”
Torrison says a good example of wild animals’ potential to spread virus to commercial facilities is the 2021/2022 highly pathogenic avian influenza.
“Minnesota had a lot of it. We've got a lot of lakes, a lot of waterfowl migrate through and there’s an overlay of the wild birds that tested positive, and then domestic birds that tested positive,” Torrison says. “Very few of the infected flock got infected from each other this time. That was a huge improvement from 2015.”
The veterinarian says the situation is similar in Europe, with some overlay of cases of African swine fever in feral pigs and domestic herds in those same regions. In the United States, the biggest concern is the possible spread of a FAD from feral pigs to a backyard or semi-extensive pig operation, Torrison says.
“How are we going to manage these less intensively confined pigs to prevent exposure to the wild pigs?” Torrison says. “If you talk to people with experience in Europe, where they have a large wild boar population, a lot of the farms that are breaking are either from contact with the wild boars or from people hunting wild boars and bringing the meat into the farms. We don't have necessarily as much of that, but there's still going to be a risk of contact.”
Just like during the COVID-19 closures, Torrison says with a FAD outbreak, there's going to be pressure on the bankers, and the financers for the plants. There are also questions about indemnity that are still not clear and also how many countries would continue to import U.S. pork and how long. While there are trade agreements with Canada and Mexico in place, what are the risk management tools the industry should be considering?
“Livestock risk insurance exists, but it doesn't necessarily have a guarantee on the basis, and so if it's based on the market price and there's no market price, what value is that insurance and then business continuity insurance is pretty expensive,” Torrison says. “I was talking with one broker who has underwritten some for feed, and the premium is about 10 to 12% of the annual loss. If you want to pay 10 to 12% of your potential loss for foreign disease outbreak, you can, but by the way, with the feed coverage, it doesn't include liability. If somebody comes after you and says you delivered it to me in your feed, you're on your own there.”
As of July, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine now includes viruses in the list of hazards in feed that need to be addressed. Mitigation measures are expected to be in place, but monitoring is not allowed.
“We're caught between the rock and the hard place,” Torrison says. “It’s like we can't have smoke detectors and I just think we need to make some rapid progress on this. It's recognized as a hazard without a solution.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the NAHLN labs stepped up to conduct much of the testing and Torrison thinks the labs could mount up and respond in the face of an FAD outbreak as well, as long as samples are coming in the door.
“This drives the need for trained non-veterinarian sample collectors that know how to submit high quality samples to the diagnostic labs in order to get the literally tens of thousands of samples that need to be tested every day in the event of an African swine fever outbreak,” Torrison says.
So is the United States swine industry ready for an FAD? Torrison says he thinks we can be if we prepare ourselves and our businesses for disruption.
“Participate in the state and national disease preparedness programs. They're really good, they're well built. They need to be participated in. And then practice and encourage the culture of candor,” Torrison says. “Are we ready to work together? That's the question. It's not, are we ready? Are we ready to work together?”