North America’s livestock industry hasn’t had an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease for decades. The last outbreak in the United States was almost 90 years ago, and it hasn’t been seen in Canada since 1952.
However, there are worst-case scenarios in which it could re-appear in Canada or the U.S.
One possible scenario is where a Canadian resident visits his home country and returns to Canada with sandwich meat in his luggage.
The meat, infected with the foot-and-mouth virus, could be discarded in a rural area and somehow come in contact with a pig, sheep or cow in Canada.
Scott Dee, a Minnesota vet and expert in livestock disease transmission, doesn’t lose sleep over such a scenario. However, he does worry about imported animal feed from places such as China and India.
“I would have to think that the feed risk would be much higher than the individual (bringing meat to North America),” said Dee, who was a University of Minnesota professor and is now director of research at Pipestone Veterinary Services in Pipestone, Minn.
“From the sheer volume, it’s the feed.”
Dee has published scientific studies on how animal feed ingredients, such as soybean meal and lysine, can be vehicles to transport livestock diseases between countries.
In 2016, he published a paper showing that porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) virus can persist in soybean meal and other feed ingredients for weeks, suggesting that a pathogen in feed could easily survive a 38-day trip from China to rural Iowa.
PED is a serious problem, but a foot-and-mouth outbreak in North America would have severe consequences.
It is a highly contagious viral disease that affects cattle, pigs and other cloven hoofed animals. The U.S. National Pork Board has said that a foot-and-mouth outbreak would cause annual revenue losses of $12.8 billion for America’s pork and beef industries.
Dee repeated the experiment to see if foot-and-mouth disease could be transported in animal feed between countries.
The answer from the study, still unpublished, was a resounding yes.
“We ran this project again using Seneca Valley A (virus) as a surrogate for FMD. It lived in almost everything that we put it through,” said Dee.
“It lived in 10 of the 11 feed ingredients that we used in the model.”
Egan Brockhoff, An Alberta veterinarian who specializes in hogs, said Dee’s research and other evidence has proven that feed is a genuine biosecurity concern for Canadian livestock producers.
“There is no question that different pathogens can use feed and feed materials as a vehicle to transport (disease) regionally, nationally and globally,” said Brockhoff of Prairie Swine Health Services in Red Deer.
“I think the veterinary community would fully support what Scott’s research has clearly shown to be true.”
Dee has been sharing his findings over the last year or so with livestock industry leaders in the U.S. and Canada.
Initially, many people were surprised that imported feed is a significant biosecurity risk, but it’s hard to ignore the evidence.
“In the swine industry we’ve had four new viruses since 2013,” Dee said. “Stuff is happening. Viruses are getting in and I think this is how they are getting in.”
Why is imported feed coming into North America?
When Dee was doing his experiment on PED virus transmission, he was surprised by the amount of soybeans and soybean meal imported into America, particularly from China.”
“We identified multiple soybean and soybean meal manufacturers in the eastern region of (China) supplying product for agricultural use in bags, totes, containers or bulk quantities, including products designated as ‘organic,’ ” Dee wrote in the 2016 paper.
The story is somewhat different in Canada.
Canadian Oilseed Processors Association data shows that most imported soybeans and soybean meal comes from the U.S., but a significant amount also comes from China, India and Ukraine.
Foot-and-mouth disease is a persistent problem in India and China.
Grain is often stored outside or even by the roadside in those countries, increasing the likelihood that an infected animal could come in contact with the grain.
It’s also possible that bags used to carry feed could contaminate the product.
Still, it seems strange that anyone in North America’s livestock trade would import feed from overseas because Canadian and American farmers produce an abundance of feedgrains and oilseeds.
In the case of soybeans and soy meal, it’s possible that a large portion of the imports are labelled “organic” because there’s a shortage of organic feed rains in North America.
“We are very dependent on imported stuff, especially soybeans,” said Tom Manley in 2016.
Manley operates Homestead Organics, a company in eastern Ontario that supplies feed and offers agronomic services to organic farmers in central Canada and New York state.
“We have tens of thousands of tonnes of feed (grains) coming in from overseas (including India).”
It’s uncertain if there is a link between imports of organic feedgrains and the arrival of foreign animal diseases, but it’s worthy of further study, Dee said.
“If organic products are coming into the country and the PED virus did live in the organic soybean meal, is that a way that type of farming is increasing the risk of new viruses coming in?”
What to do? Ban imports of feed?
Banning imports of feed ingredients from countries with foot-and-mouth seems like a simple solution. But Brockhoff and Dee both dismissed the option.
Instead, it’s more appropriate to assess the level of risk and point out red flags, such as feed bags being stored too close to livestock. Then, share the findings with people in the industry.
“Just because you (have) a feed ingredient in China doesn’t mean (it is) exposed to foot-and-mouth virus or classical swine fever … or PED,” Brockhoff said.
“You say, ‘based on our assessment, we feel you shouldn’t be purchasing product from these particular regions.’ I think that’s a reasonable approach.”
Another possibility is testing imported feed for pathogens. Dee is skeptical about testing, which he described as a “wild goose chase.”
“Testing is going to be tough. You’ve got many points (of sources) and huge volumes of feed coming in,” he said.
“The chances of catching the right sample and getting it to the lab on time (is slim).”
A better option is treating feed ingredients at the country of origin, he said.
Starting this summer, Dee and his team will look at ways to chemically treat feed to find methods that safely eliminate pathogens.
However, in the big picture, people in North America’s livestock industry may need to change their thinking about feed and feed ingredients.
Importing soybean meal from India or soybeans from Ukraine may save a few dollars, but is it worth the risk?
“Maybe changing sources to countries of lower risk,” Dee said.
“Making health decisions rather than price decisions.”
What is foot & mouth disease?
- FMD is a highly contagious viral disease that affects cattle, swine, sheep, goats and other cloven-hoofed ruminants. It can also infect all species of deer and antelopes as well as elephants and giraffes.
- FMD is not readily transmissible to humans.
- The disease is spread in all secretions and can become airborne through the breathing of infected animals. The virus may be present in milk or semen for up to four days before the animal shows clinical signs.
- Symptoms include fever, blisters on the tongue, lips or inside the mouth, blisters on teats or between hooves. Secondary illnesses such as infection can set in when the blisters rupture.
- FMD can be diagnosed through laboratory testing. There are vaccines for FMD but there are seven different strains of this virus, each requiring a specific vaccine to provide immunity.
- The majority of adult animals infected with FMD recover from the illness after a week or two, but severe production losses can occur and the animals are often left weakened or lame. Young animals often die from FMD when blisters damage the heart muscle.
- FMD is endemic in several parts of Asia, much of Africa and the Middle East. The majority of Latin American countries are recognized to be free of FMD with or without vaccination protocols, but the disease does still occur in a few of those countries. Central and North America, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and continental Western Europe are currently free of FMD.
Source: World Organization for Animal Health