Report on the Secretary of Agriculture’s Advisory Committee on Animal Health (SACAH), By Gilles Stockton

Report on the Secretary of Agriculture’s Advisory Committee on Animal Health (SACAH)

The Secretary of Agriculture’s Advisory Committee on Animal Health (SACAH) has finalized recommendations for this current session of the Committee’s debates. The SACAH is an official advisory body consisting of twenty members who are appointed to discuss and recommend to the Secretary policy affecting livestock agriculture. Members represent all segments of the livestock industry and most are veterinarians, only 3 of us are actual livestock producers. The SACAH studies and deliberates issues on a variety of animal health topics and then make recommendations to the Secretary. This year’s recommendations cover a number of important issues.

Framework Agreement for Foreign Animal Disease Zoning. The issue which most interested me is the framework agreement that USDA has negotiated with Canada about our mutual responses should either the US or Canada have an outbreak of a highly contagious foreign animal disease (HCFAD). Because our livestock industry and markets are very much integrated it is important that the Veterinary Services of APHIS has a pre-negotiated agreement with their Canadian counterparts. I am not one of those who takes pleasure from the notion of a “North American” livestock industry but the fact of the matter is that a disease outbreak in the one country will have repercussions in the other.

I differed with most of the Committee over the section describing how a “zone” to contain the disease outbreak would be declared and administered. A “zone” is a disease containment area such as the one that has been declared around Yellowstone Park to curtail the spread of Brucellosis yet allow livestock from the rest of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming to be marketed as Brucellosis free. The difference is that Brucellosis is a slow moving disease, this agreement with Canada covers highly infectious diseases. My concern is that the wording of that particular section of the agreement is confusing and may be interpreted to sanction a short circuit in the recommendations given by the World Animal Health Organization (OIE) which are the international standards for dealing with disease epidemics.

My worry is that the inadequate wording in the Agreement will be used to allow livestock movements before the disease outbreak is securely contained. We have seen from experience that governments are more responsive to the demands of multinational industry than to the advice of regulatory authorities, or the concerns of grassroots producers. When we are faced with an HCFAD outbreak, and I use when instead of if, we don’t want the response to be bungled. Clear language is important, especially in a trade related agreement with a foreign country that probably will be used as a precedent for similar agreements with other countries.

It was somewhat ironic that our final deliberations and vote on this issue happened the day before the news that an additional Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) infected cow was found in Canada. The BSE mess is an example of exactly what might happen when an even more serious disease outbreak occurs. For trade reasons, US authorities ignored science and the interests of grassroots producers to allow imports of live cattle from Canada before Canada had contained and eliminated BSE. Because the Asian countries that purchase US meat could not distinguish if the meat they were buying came from the US or Canadian cattle, they banned US imports at great economic loss to every US cattle producer. In essence we adopted Canada’s BSE disease status for no particularly good reason even though we had no control over how the Canadian authorities controlled BSE. With this latest BSE cow we see that Canada has still not eradicated BSE.

That is in a nutshell my reasoning as to why USDA should not enter into an agreement with Canada that short-circuits the OIE standards. However, the majority of the SACAH committee did not agree with me. If this agreement with Canada is to be corrected it will be up to livestock producers to directly raise their concerns with the Secretary of Agriculture. You can read the Framework Agreement by typing in the following on your internet browser: DRAFT APHIS-CFIA FAD Zoning Framework—March 19, 2014

I find it gratifying how because of Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) this latest BSE cow in Canada has not affected the US demand for beef. It would be the same multinational industry forces who have attacked COOL that would exploit the poorly worded Framework Agreement with Canada to short – circuit strict zoning requirements. Everyone would be put at risk for the benefit of the few.

Foot and Mouth Disease Preparedness. Much of what the SACAH Committee has discussed in the five years that I have served, has in one way or another been about Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD). The Highly Contagious Foreign Animal Disease (HCFAD) that everyone worries most about in the above issue of the Framework Zoning Agreement with Canada is FMD. We had a presentation from USDA veterinary experts explaining how our government would respond should there be an FMD outbreak. It was sobering because the plain truth is that we are not prepared.

The problem comes down to money. There are 7 serotypes of FMD each with a number of strains. Each different strain of FMD, requires its own specific vaccine. When an outbreak occurs the first task would be to determine exactly which strain we are dealing with and then respond with mass vaccination of all cloven hoofed mammals surrounding the focus of the infection. Keeping millions of doses of vaccine for each possible strain on ice is expensive and it is an expense that has to be repeated every few years when the vaccine’s effectiveness expires. There is a glimmer of possible good news. New vaccine technology promises a vaccine that would be effective against all FMD varieties. But this is still only a promise and for that to become a reality the research needs adequate funding.

We worry about FMD because it is highly contagious yet in many countries of the world it is endemic and not a big deal. Animals get sick but most recover and the disease does not infect humans. FMD is a concern to us because FMD free countries like the US do not want to import the disease because it would harm our trade with other FMD free countries. When FMD gets introduced into the US or Canada, it will be hard to eradicate, because deer and feral hogs would act as a reservoir. So the main concern is economic and if/when it gets introduced cattle, sheep, and hog markets will crash. The cost in that case will be in the billions, while preparedness and prevention is only in the millions.

In our discussions we did bring up one issue that that I hope gets attention. If you have traveled outside of the US you may remember that on the immigration/customs form that you fill out upon returning, there is a box to check if you had visited a farm on your foreign trip. If you check that box, you will be directed to the USDA/APHIS line where someone will look through your luggage for food products and wash your shoes to remove possible manure contamination. This is irrelevant harassment if you have visited a farm in FMD free Europe or Australia. However, If your trip was to Africa, Asia, or South America you don’t need to have visited a farm. The FMD virus can be contacted anywhere, because livestock are raised everywhere, including the major cities. If we are going to be serious about preventing FMD, we need to start getting serious about preventing FMD from being introduced from the places where it is endemic. We should screen general passengers better and we certainly should not import raw beef and pork products from FMD positive areas.

Interstate Livestock Traceability: The major issue that the SACAH debated in previous sessions was the desire of the Veterinary Service to require identification on all animals in interstate commerce. Each species – hogs, poultry, sheep, and horses – all have their own identification requirements but cattle producers successfully deflected that issue to the degree that the ID requirement currently only applies to breeding age beef cattle and dairy cattle of all ages. USDA eventually plans to institute rulemaking to require identification on feeder cattle as well. In our last meeting the SACAH committee listened to a presentation by APHIS as to how the current requirements are being adopted. From a technical and administrative point of view the ID program seems to be going pretty well.

However the hog industry has suffered a major outbreak of Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea (PED). The underlying rational for the interstate livestock movement traceability rule, which is a scaled down version of the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) that was previously proposed and rejected, is that ID is necessary to contain a highly infective disease such as FMD. The hog industry was held as the standard because they had voluntarily adopted a strict premise and movement ID system. It is the beef cattle industry that was deemed to have insufficient requirements in animal identification.

The PED virus was first identified in this country in May of 2013 and within a few month spread all over the US and Canada causing huge losses to the hog industry. The SACAH is recommending to the Secretary that USDA studies the spread of the PED virus to determine the factors that contributed to the disease getting out of control. In other words, why didn’t the hog industry’s state of the art animal identification program contain the spread of PED?

This is not just of academic interest. The USDA Veterinary Service, the multi-national meat packers, and the organizations that the Packers control are committed to the notion that all feeder cattle in interstate commerce (which is almost all of them) should be identified with RFID tags. This proposal, which would finalize the NAIS agenda that grassroots producers successfully opposed ten years ago, will for all practical purposes become a reality. Cattle producers argued that NAIS was too intrusive, too expensive, and not likely to be useful. Those arguments are still true and apparently even though the hog industry is using their version of the NAIS system, having that premise and movement information did not stop the spread of the disease.

Antimicrobial Resistance. It was back in the 1960’s when I took a class on Microbiology that I first became aware of the possibility that the routine feeding of antibiotics to animals in confinement growing systems could result in antibiotic resistant strains of disease. Since that time this issue has bubbled along, occasionally reaching public attention, and then disappearing for a few years to eventually come back again – without ever being resolved. It is a hot topic again, and it is still a question that is unresolved – does the routine use of antibiotics in animal rations contribute to the antibiotic resistant disease problem or doesn’t it?

I find this prolonged controversy to be irritating. The people opposed to feeding antibiotics strike me to be somewhat ill informed and hysterical while the people defending the practice suffer from profit induced myopia. I don’t understand why research has not answered the question one way or another. However, recent research from both Europe and the US is showing a correlation of antibiotic resistance in communities with large numbers of confinement hog facilities.

We, as livestock producers, should be concerned. On the one hand using antibiotics in animal rations is convenient and helps confinement operations to be profitable. On the other hand, it is livestock producers, their families, and the people who work for them that would be most at risk to contacting an antibiotic resistant disease. My wife and I have a friend who contacted Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) shortly after moving to North Carolina, a state which has many confinement hog facilities. That might have been just a coincidence but our friend went through a year of hell, including surgery to physically cut out the pockets of infection. Antibiotic resistant diseases are deadly serious and livestock producers have a vested interest in supporting research to determine to what extent using antibiotics in animal feed contributes to the problem. The SACAH called for more and conclusive research and I hope the Secretary will heed our advice. It is time to put this issue to rest once and for all.

This session of the SACAH is coming to an end, and the Secretary will be naming a new committee for the coming two years. I have applied for re-appointment, but there is no guarantee that I would be selected again. Maybe they are tired of me and my questioning of conventional thinking and the status quo. I have enjoyed the opportunity to serve on the committee and whether I am re-appointed or not, I think it has been a worthwhile effort for both livestock producers and for myself.

Gilles Stockton
Stockton Ranch
Grass Range, Montana
406 428-2183