You should never waste a good crisis – right? Every good politician knows that! The AASV executive officers recently returned from Washington, DC, so I find that old saying running through my mind quite often in recent weeks. However, it isn’t politics that occupies my thoughts. It is porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) virus. I’m afraid I don’t know of any other AASV president who has had the unenviable opportunity of writing about a “transboundary” disease in their president’s message. “Transboundary” is an innocuous term we use when we want to avoid all the ramifications and damage that could be caused by using a term like “foreign animal disease.” In the modern era of swine production in North America (at least since we have become a net exporter of pork), we have not had to deal with the consequences of a foreign animal disease (FAD) outbreak. That is a testament to the processes and protocols that have protected our industry. However, if our recent predicament isn’t a wake-up call, I don’t know what is.
All evidence, in the case of PED virus, seems to indicate that we have experienced an infection in our domestic swine herd due to a virus that has not been diagnosed on this continent before. Further, it is likely that this virus is of Chinese origin. Even further, it is very likely that it infected pigs in five noncontiguous US states within a few days of each other, from a point source. Had this been an area-spread phenomenon, versus a point-source phenomenon, we would have expected to see more diversity in viral RNA upon sequence analysis. Where the virus came from is not really my point of relevance. How it got here is. And what it would cause if it were recognized as a true FAD certainly is. I would venture to guess that it has crossed most of our minds at this point that we could just as easily be talking about African swine fever, classical swine fever, or foot-and-mouth disease.
Through hard work or good luck or both, we have built our modern-day swine industry into the enviable position of exporting a significant fraction of our annually produced products. I believe, on many fronts, that is a declaration of success. It is also a monumental vulnerability. The winds of fate are not kind to an industry built around exportation when the export doors close.
Dr Jim Roth spoke at our annual conference about his team’s efforts to formulate a plan for business continuity in the face of a foreign animal disease outbreak. I applaud their efforts relative to the “Secure Pork” initiative. I believe they have made important strides in determining how, at least within the borders of the United States, we could deal with a foreign animal disease more gracefully. The Secure Pork plan discusses the issues of logistics, transportation, control, potential eradication, and retention of open thoroughfares of business, at least at a national level. It is a great start. What I haven’t heard nearly enough about is how we would deal with the economic catastrophe of a foreign animal disease break in our North American herd. From the US perspective, forcing 25% more product onto our domestic market would, at least in the short and intermediate terms, be economically devastating.
The world we live in has more global scope than it has ever had. That definitely applies to agriculture in general and to the swine industry specifically. We grow products in one country and ship them to others. The inputs used in the growing, processing, and packaging of these products come from still other countries. We strive to manage animal health relative to international boundaries, but the risk factors involved don’t read maps. It all makes the process of protecting our borders – protecting our animals – very important and very challenging. Science is our chief tool and weapon of defense. Frustratingly, science seeks to characterize what nature has already created. It is by its very essence a trailing-edge endeavor. Still, we must use the best science available, under the best human oversight, to protect our clients, our patients, and ultimately our industry.
The Secure Pork initiative under Dr Roth’s guidance is very important work. What I would like to see in addition to this work is a producer-driven and at least partially producer-funded initiative that would allow for regional (country) matching of supply with demand. This would likely take the form of a voluntary, producer-driven buy-out program that may wind up looking something like current dairy programs. If viably constructed and well managed, this could provide a road map to catastrophic risk management, better transitional animal welfare, and possibly even better animal health as an industry. It is a difficult challenge to manage a capital-intensive business under the perpetual threat of catastrophic loss. Providing a solution may stretch our creativity, but ultimately, it should prove a worthwhile exercise.
-- Matt Anderson, DVM