‘Not ready yet’ for disease disaster

Canada is advised to test its preparedness for a multi-species, multi-province, serious animal disease outbreak scenario

GATINEAU, Que. — Here’s the hypothetical scenario that, if it or something like it ever came to pass, could damage producers’ livelihoods, Canada’s economy, international trade and animal welfare. It goes like this.

Martha and Jon have a small mixed farm in British Columbia’s southern interior. The “back to the land” farmers describe their production system as natural and organic, and they have 20 sows, 50 beef cows and two bulls.

Last week, they shipped 18 weaners and two cull sows, which went to four different destinations. One of them was a heifer replacement farm that supplies large dairies in the Lower Fraser Valley. They also shipped calves last week to two auctions in southern Alberta.

Martha and Jon have two home-stay students from China, one of whom recently returned from visiting relatives on a Chinese farm.

The farming couple has noticed ongoing lameness issues in their pigs, which seems to have spread to their cattle. Is it foot-and-mouth disease? If so, is the livestock industry ready and able to handle it?

“The answer, regrettably from my perspective, is no. The livestock industry is not ready yet,” said Matt Taylor of the Animal Health Emergency Management Project.

He presented the hypothetical scenario at the National Farmed Animal Health and Welfare Council forum in late November. If a reportable disease were to be found in such a situation, it could lead to an outbreak across several commodities and provinces and involve provincial and federal governments and several livestock industries and their suppliers.

The very thought is enough to induce nightmares, but Taylor also said many groups, organizations and government bodies are working on preparedness plans, so the level of engagement in addressing the problem has never been higher.

To enhance that, Taylor suggested that next year’s NFAHWC forum feature a full-day discussion exercise to test industry and government collaboration in a multi-species, multi-province, serious animal disease outbreak scenario.

“From my perspective, having worked in this area for a number of years, an exercise of this nature will be painful and we will learn things we don’t really want to admit and acknowledge right now,” Taylor told the forum.

He provided numbers indicating the high stakes involved. The agricultural industry contributes $110 billion annually to Canada’s gross domestic product, and the livestock sector makes up the largest part of that total, he said.

 

There are 79,000 livestock operations in the country, and 2.3 million jobs are directly or indirectly related to the sector, said Taylor.

“If we have a serious animal disease outbreak, will we regain our export market prominence that our beef and pork industries presently enjoy? Will Canadian consumers even come back to beef or pork if we fail to anticipate a major outbreak and don’t effectively handle key issues such as depopulation?”

The Animal Health Emergency Management Project runs until 2023 and is funded with $2.6 million from the Canadian Agricultural Partnership. Its goal, said Taylor, is to “build awareness and understanding such that we can create greater capacity to withstand a serious animal disease outbreak and ensure that relative to this known and very real risk to our industry, that our livestock industry is in fact sustainable.”

Among project activities is development of protocols to address gaps in industry policy, said Taylor, such as how to get producers to stop livestock movement in the first days of a suspected disease outbreak and what to do with the approximately 40,000 animals that are on trucks across the country when an outbreak is confirmed.

As well, the project aims to help create resources for staff at livestock industry associations so they have content to give to producers. Taylor said there have already been numerous workshops and meetings with industry groups to accomplish this and more are planned.

Once that process is complete, he estimated that associations representing 75 to 90 percent of the livestock industry’s farm cash receipts will be working with the same set of consistent directives and rules.

Taylor also said a live, interactive, web-based training program has been designed to update veterinarians on foot-and-mouth disease and other foreign animal diseases that they don’t normally see.

Canada’s livestock numbers:

  • 14.1 million pigs
  • 10.1 million beef cattle
  • 1.4 million dairy cattle
  • 1 million sheep
  • 963,000 horses
  • 230,034 goats
  • 119,314 bison

Source: AHEM Project

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