The USDA has had its hands full in recent years dealing with outbreaks of new diseases that threaten the health of food animals and, by extension, the bottom lines of farmers and food producers. Recent examples of such emerging threats include porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDv), which has taken the lives of at least 8 million pigs since 2013, and the highly pathogenic H5N2 avian flu that led to the loss of 48 million birds last year.
So it’s no wonder the USDA is fine-tuning its response to emerging animal diseases–and seeking the public’s input on its plan for doing so. The agency has released an 18-page document outlining four core activities that it believes should be undertaken in response to outbreaks of animal diseases. It is asking for comments to be submitted by November 1, after which time it will propose a new rule, according to a statement.
The USDA first suggests increasing the awareness of diseases that are emerging overseas, and preparing for the possibility that those pathogens may pose a threat to U.S. animal health, public health or trade. Responses would be coordinated by a designated cross-unit team at the USDA and would range from monitoring the diseases to establishing import restrictions. The plan also proposes methods for collaborating with government agencies, and for communicating with affected companies and the public about emerging disease threats.
“Rapid response to emerging diseases can prevent or limit the negative impact to animal health, the economy, food security, and public health,” the USDA says in the proposed response plan. “In these cases, having useful situational animal health information can help agency policy makers and the public make informed decisions.”
The USDA has launched several new initiatives of late aimed at improving the nation’s response to emerging diseases. In the spring, the agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) formed three agreements with overseas governments to boost vaccine access and coordinate responses to emerging pathogens. For example, it entered into the International Animal Health Emergency Reserve, which allows the U.S. to share a pool of emergency resources with Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and the U.K.
Still, some experts have raised concerns that the USDA does not have adequate resources to respond to animal health emergencies. APHIS administrator Kevin Shea recently told the House Committee on Agriculture that the agency has lost 200 animal specialists and that funding for animal health work is less than it was a decade ago. Poultry experts told The New York Times that they fear a return of avian flu, and that another outbreak could put 9 billion birds and 90 billion eggs in harm’s way.
The USDA has been rolling out a multifaceted plan to prepare for the possible return of highly pathogenic avian flu, which includes improving biosecurity on farms. The agency is also stockpiling vaccines made by Ceva Animal Health and Merck ($MRK)-owned Harrisvaccines, and in June of this year it awarded a third contract to Zoetis ($ZTS), which will make more than 68 million doses of its vaccine against the H5N1 strain of avian flu for the stockpile over the next two years.