Are You Prepared for a Biosecurity Disaster?

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It seems we’ve seen more natural disasters this year than usual: fires, floods and extreme cold have filled the headlines. Beyond natural tragedies are the threats of terrorist attacks through the deliberate use of biological and chemical agents. This fact has been highlighted by the discovery of substantial biological weapons development programs and arsenals in foreign countries, attempts to acquire or possess biological agents by militants and high-profile terrorist attacks.

An act of biological terrorism might range from dissemination of aerosolized anthrax spores to food product contamination; and predicting when and how such an attack might occur is not possible. However, the possibility of biological or chemical terrorism should not be ignored, especially in light of events during the past 10 years. Preparing the nation to address this threat is a formidable challenge, but the consequences of being unprepared could be devastating.

As part of our national preparedness, animal identification is more than a desire – it is a necessity. It’s a classic issue of surrendering a bit of the autonomy that likely appealed to your decision to become a pork producer in the first place, in deference to the broader interest of the pork industry and animal agriculture in general. In the long term, the ultimate reward comes back to the producer. It is the same issue of private versus public interest that permeates our lives every day. Take, for example, when seat belt laws were first enacted: We didn’t want the government telling us what to do, even if the end goal was to ensure our own personal safety. They were considered a violation of our personal rights at first but it’s become second nature to buckle-up.

Each approach is being considered in terms of retention, logistics and the ease of capture and transfer. From the database of movements established from the thousands of herds involved, traceability as enabled by divergent approaches will be assessed in the face of simulated foreign animal disease invasions. Only after intense review and analysis of different programs will the industry determine which system is most favorable for all parties.

Industry leaders are at the discussion table, representing your best interests. Fortunately for producers, the overriding theme is to develop a voluntary program with widespread adoption. For a voluntary program to be successful, animal agricultural experts must be involved in the overall design, implementation and execution of the program.

In the broader sense, livestock identification becomes an important component of a national biosecurity plan in which animal health officials work in tandem with local and state health departments, federal agencies, and medical and public health professional associations. Success of the plan hinges on strengthening the relationships between medical and public health professionals and on building new partner-ships with emergency management, the military and law enforcement professionals.

From the viewpoint of animal health, it is highly unlikely that you will be asked to do more than can be justified on the basis of one or more positive contributions that result from a national identification program. These include the obvious and important benefits of safeguarding your industry and your livelihood. This position respects the crucial roles identification and tracking play in national preparedness in the event of a major animal disease outbreak. Knowing the infrastructure is equipped and ready to handle an emergency disease event offers a security and credibility we can’t afford to deny. 

Producers, government officials and agribusiness representatives must continue to collaborate. A thoughtful, far-sighted plan will ensure creation of identification and tracking systems that meet the necessary standards to serve both domestic needs and the expectations of the international trading community.

Strip away the rhetoric and it comes down to this: The pork industry, with its best interests and those of animal agriculture in mind, must make a voluntary commitment to national identification. National security and consumer demands dictate the need to move forward. Input from industry and government experts, as well as from broad-minded producers, will ensure consideration of viable approaches.

From the viewpoint of food quality and safety, the system will undoubtedly support Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HAACP) approaches enacted along the food production, processing and distribution chains.  From a public perspective, the pork industry will finally have an answer for consumers who desire to know where their food comes from. And from the standpoint of national security, animal agriculture will take a leadership role in becoming the first line of defense should a food-related biosecurity breach occur.