In April 2015, the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus H5N2 moved from a handful of flocks in southern Minnesota into Iowa. Before it was over five months later, more than 30 million birds either died from the virus or were euthanized. That’s more than 40 percent of Iowa’s layer hens (Iowa leads the nation in egg production), along with a quarter of the state’s turkey flock.
The outbreak cost the Iowa economy close to $1.2 billion, with an economic ripple effect that could last a decade. Iowa was one of 10 states hit by the avian flu in the worst U.S. foreign animal-disease outbreak on record.
“It was definitely a wake-up call,” says Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey. “It got everybody’s attention. We found out it’s not impossible to survive this type of crisis, but we hope no one else ever has to go through it.”
Can it happen to beef?
“If it does, we’re in trouble,” says Grant Dewell, assistant professor at Iowa State University’s Iowa Beef Center.
It’s taken years of effort to increase U.S. beef herd numbers after falling to record lows. Rebuilding after losing one-fourth to one-half of the herd to disease is unimaginable.
“And if this type of thing should wipe out one of our major seedstock producers, then we’ve lost an entire gene pool and years of genetic progress,” he adds.
The business of beef might never fully recover. Export markets would likely close and remain so, making trade implications one of the more complicating factors in the USDA response to foreign animal disease.
Protecting the brand is also the job of the state departments of ag — a mission as crucial to any disease response as controlling the outbreak. According to Northey, “It’s our job to reassure the consumer, in the midst of this type of crisis, that the meat is still safe to eat. The animals that survive still need a market.”
This type of disease outbreak not only can happen within the beef industry, but the possibility is high it will.
“We’re seeing new pathogens emerge at an unprecedented rapid rate,” says James Roth, Iowa State University professor and director of the Center for Food Security and Public Health.
About one new disease a year is identified worldwide. Other known pathogens have the potential to mutate into a danger for any given species, and all with no developed vaccine or known symptomology — or any idea of its effects.
“It’s hard to imagine all the possibilities,” Roth says. “Whatever happens, it will throw us into the unknown.”
Learn what we can
“From the very beginning, they all paid attention,” says Mike Naig, deputy secretary of Iowa’s Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. “The Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, the swine industry, Farm Bureau, they were all watching closely, eager to capture the lessons being learned.”
It didn’t take long to put thought into action. A daylong tabletop exercise that included a who’s who of Iowa animal-ag personnel met Sept. 25 to “take a deep dive into response” of a potential outbreak.
“The jury’s still out on some pieces,” Naig says. “Animal disease planning is learn as you go. We’ve been talking about animal-disease outbreaks for years. Now there is a new sense of urgency.”
Kansas was preparing for a foreign animal-disease outbreak before the avian flu and has stepped up efforts since. “We definitely see some things differently,” says Sandy Johnson, emergency management coordinator for the Kansas Department of Agriculture.
Much of the previous effort was focused on foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). The state has an extensive and well-rehearsed plan for controlling animal movement and containing the disease. “But we found out with the poultry epidemic little of that applied,” Johnson says. “We didn’t need roadblocks; we needed euthanasia.”
Johnson and her team closely watched Iowa and other states through the disaster and since, adding the knowledge to their own experience. “We learned a lot more about control zones and the concept of overlapping circles. We were able to assess the effectiveness of our command structure — who makes policy decisions and where. We learned what our field staff really need in their go kit.” And they learned about increasing the intensity of their preparations. “There’s a stronger focus now on increased biosecurity. Now we know the chaos that can occur. Now we work even harder.”
Northey and Naig also found value in the organization of disaster. “You learn pretty quickly where your plan meets reality,” Naig says, “but even though the disease doesn’t necessarily do what you expect, the plan helps. Protocols are established. Resources are identified.”
Those resources include academia, and close collaboration with other state agencies like Public Health, Transportation, Homeland Security and Emergency Management. “We’re experts in animal agriculture,” Northey says. “They’re experts in what they do. We need their expertise.”
All work with the USDA
The USDA had a foreign animal-disease plan in place prior to April 2015. But by the time the H5N2 virus jumped the Minnesota-Iowa line, the scope of the disaster had outgrown any imagined scenario.
USDA field personnel were dispatched with expediency, but their numbers were insufficient for the enormous task at hand.
Computer programs designed with multiple screens proved cumbersome. Those on the ground, like Johnson, found it difficult to get clearance to dispatch their own field staff.
“The system doesn’t allow for pre-entry of any information, like known sites and cattle inventories, and that can tie things up during the crisis,” she says.
She also found Internet access sketchy in rural areas. “We relied more on good, old-fashioned pen and paper. The technology slowed us down.”
“The USDA quickly found their resources overextended,” Naig says, “but they learned, like we all did. They’re working to fix some of those issues now.”
Not only is the USDA learning how to respond more effectively, but it’s reassessing how to make the best use of funds.
All totaled, the avian flu outbreak cost the USDA just shy of $1 billion.
As Naig says: “They won’t likely be doing that again anytime soon.”
Who pays for the next one?
There is no doubt more of the bill will fall on the states, and Naig says the Iowa Department of Ag has plans to hit up the state legislature for more dollars in its emergency fund. The U.S. Congress is aware of the need, also, with groups like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) hoping to keep the pressure on.
NCBA communication director Chase Adams says looking for additional crisis resources is part of the organization’s mission to keep animal health a priority, and part of a broader effort that involves working with government to support research, education and vaccine and resource development. “The industry and the government are engaged in these discussions, and we continue to work collaboratively to ensure that this doesn’t happen, and that we are prepared if it does.”
Northey anticipates a change in the payment procedure going forward. Instead of the USDA contracting for services like carcass disposal and facility disinfecting, responsibility will likely fall to the producer, with a reimbursement formula based on average cost.
The USDA offers indemnity for animals that are depopulated but not those that die of natural causes. Private livestock insurance does exist, and the notion of a government livestock insurance program, similar to crop insurance, has been kicked around but has yet to sprout legs. “I really don’t see beef producers paying more money to the government anytime soon,” Dewell says.
While states are conducting planning exercises, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has begun a partnership with K-State’s National Agricultural Biosecurity Center to provide training to state and local first responders that focuses on safety and best practices in the event of need for euthanasia, disposal, quarantine, disinfecting, and personal protection and equipment care.
For the producer, increased awareness of biosecurity is essential going forward.
Beef production offers unique hurdles. Animals are raised out of doors for the most part, making them especially susceptible to agents spread by wild animals (wild fowl are blamed for H5N2). And cattle from various sources are often commingled.
“Still, there are things we can do,” Roth says. “Beware of sharing equipment and personnel. Inexpensive measures like clean boots and coveralls as people travel from one location to another could, and should, be common practice. Limit access to your farm or feedlot. Be on top of sick animals.”
He says all staff should be tuned to animal-health issues and report anything unfamiliar to the veterinarian. “The best chance to stop something is to catch it early,” Roth says. A vet should conduct a necropsy on any unexplained death.
Even the familiar can be misleading, Roth cautions. A relatively new swine virus — Seneca Valley virus — mimics FMD, causing potential misdiagnosis of either malady.
He says vets are receiving training through professional channels to identify and treat new agents. “This is an era of greater awareness all around the world.”
Training is there for producers, too. The NCBA Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program devotes significant attention to biosecurity. Through its cow-calf and feedyard assessments and standard operating procedures templates, producers can develop protocols for receiving and transporting cattle, feed sampling and facility maintenance, as well as emergency action plans.
“It is important to have a plan,” says Josh White, NCBA executive director, producer education. “When a crisis happens, the presence of a plan, however simple, will add a measure of confidence and clarity.”
Northey says producers also have to be ready to accept outbreak control measures. Fat cattle headed to market may be held on site. Incoming calves may need alternate arrangements. “Producers will need to keep in mind they are part of a bigger response.”
BQA also offers recordkeeping templates that can help simplify animal and premises identification for all types of operations.
Northey says he has a personal bias that leans toward the producer knowing what’s best for his operation, but they must acknowledge the importance of identifying herds to curtail disease. “This is not just an opportunity for government to increase its role. We want to be there as a resource, and that means being able to respond quickly and effectively.”
For Johnson in Kansas, finding and isolating backyard flocks created a huge hurdle during the avian flu outbreak. Response time was quicker for those that were traceable, and Roth says that can make the difference between a controlled outbreak and disaster.
Officials learned from the chickens that disaster can strike, and efforts to mitigate that disaster begin down on the farm. That puts producer awareness at the top of the preparations list.
“Every producer out there says, ‘It can’t happen to me,’” Johnson says. “My job is to tell them, ‘Yes, it can.’”