Original research
Pounds of paperwork

The pork industry is data driven. It’s one of the things that actually drew me to swine veterinary medicine. Pork producers and veterinarians want to collect and analyze data about all aspects of the industry to better understand the implications of what we do. I started my career at a large swine and turkey production company in North Carolina in 1990. The company collected a lot of data, mostly focused on understanding the economics of our business. Every month we met as a management team and spent hours poring over reams of computer printouts, evaluating costs to the fourth decimal point. The running joke was that we should just do away with measuring our performance by analyzing production parameters such as farrowing rates and average daily gains and instead just look at pounds of paperwork per pound of pork.

As the years passed and the company grew, we expanded our data-collection efforts to evaluate additional aspects of the business, such as the impacts of animal health on performance. It also became evident that we could benefit from understanding how our performance compared with that of other pork producers, so we started sharing our data – confidentially, of course. This enabled us to benchmark our performance economically, but it also provided an opportunity to enhance decisions based on animal health. By sharing disease information, we could better locate new facilities, prepare for disease exposure, and monitor herd-health status to benefit disease control and eradication efforts.

Recent disease-control challenges such as pseudorabies eradication, porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome area control, influenza surveillance, and porcine epidemic diarrhea virus monitoring have illustrated the need for the ability to share disease data across the industry. The implementation of premises identifiers and the capability to trace animal movements have made disease epidemiology more meaningful and useful. There are some significant challenges yet to overcome, however, regarding the ability to efficiently utilize all the available data.

First, producers have to be willing to share their premises data and disease status information at some level that allows for effective decision making. Obviously, it is necessary to maintain the confidentiality of the data, but there are mechanisms to ensure that security. We really have very little understanding of the prevalence, distribution, and severity of disease challenges facing the US swine industry. We are currently seeing encouraging steps to address this information gap with such programs as the Swine Health Monitoring Project. Expansion of the project is necessary if it is to become truly representative of US pork production. The National Animal Health Monitoring System conducted by the US Department of Agriculture’s Center for Epidemiology and Animal Health is another example of data collection and analysis at the national level.

Willingness to share data is just part of the equation, however. There also needs to be an effective and efficient method to transfer the data to someone, group or agency, who can coordinate and analyze the data. This step can be a significant technical challenge. An example of this is the need to transfer diagnostic laboratory information between laboratories, clients, researchers, and regulatory officials. All of these groups have their own databases and spreadsheets. Standardizing the data and connecting the disparate databases to facilitate electronic transfer of the data is no easy feat. Particularly during times of animal health emergency, it is critical that the exchange and analysis of data promotes business continuity by not unnecessarily delaying the movement of animals and animal products. During a large-scale disease outbreak, sharing data by spreadsheet is extremely inefficient.

While many of the key swine veterinary diagnostic laboratories have made great strides in standardizing their data, much work remains to enable the seamless transfer of data across all pertinent stakeholders and for all pathogens. On the positive side, the technology exists to bridge these databases and facilitate the transfer of data. However, obtaining the necessary funding and committing the technical resources remain the key stumbling blocks to implementation of this technology. Veterinarians and pork producers need to make this a priority issue and not wait on the government to make it happen.

Harry Snelson, DVM Director of Communications