According to the National Agricultural Statistical Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), approximately 65,000 dairy farms in the United States provide milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and other dairy products to hundreds of millions of people around the world on a daily basis. Ensuring that the 9.2 million head of dairy cattle are healthy, well cared for, and able to produce high-quality milk is the primary focus of the nation’s dairy producers and veterinarians. However, there is one disease – foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) – that threatens not only national animal health and the economic viability of U.S. agriculture but also the supply of milk and other dairy products available to the American people.
A Potential Outbreak Scenario
FMD is a foreign animal disease found in more than 100 countries throughout the world. Although it has not infected animals in the United States since 1929, this highly contagious viral disease affects food-producing, cloven-hooved animals such as cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats. Unlike the similarly named “hand, foot, and mouth disease,” FMD is not a public health concern but, rather, a strictly animal disease. If an outbreak of this disease were to occur now, a national animal health emergency would necessarily be declared.
To contain FMD, minimize spread of the virus to susceptible animals, and protect the food supply, a control area would be established, and not only farm quarantines but also other restrictions on animal movement would be implemented. Because the U.S. dairy industry operates using a just-in-time supply practice for milk movement, it would be significantly impacted by such control measures. The movement of raw milk to processing plants and to consumers could cease, resulting in significant milk disposal and animal welfare concerns for the nation’s dairy farms.
Unfortunately, most U.S. dairy operations and processing plants do not have the capacity to store large quantities of milk for more than 48 hours; in fact, some have less than a 24-hour storage capacity. Since its inception in 2009, the Secure Milk Supply (SMS) Plan – funded by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health and Inspection Service – has been developing a number of new approaches to provide the safe, timely, and risk-based movement of animals and animal products for the dairy industry while at the same time controlling and containing FMD outbreaks.
Preparedness and Response Planning
The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has developed the Foreign Animal Disease Preparedness and Response Plan’s FMD Response Plan in the event the disease occurs within the United States. During an outbreak, the three most important as well as most immediate response goals would be to: (a) quickly detect, control, and contain the outbreak; (b) eradicate the outbreak through the use of strategies that not only stabilize animal agriculture, the food supply, and the economy but also protect public health; and (c) provide science- and risk-based approaches and systems that facilitate the continuity of operations for animals and animal products that are not contaminated.
Within this framework, the overall goals of the National SMS Plan are to: (a) maintain business continuity for dairy producers and processors during an FMD outbreak; (b) minimize spread of the disease; and (c) ensure a continuous supply of milk and milk products to consumers. Working groups consisting primarily of engaged stakeholders – including dairy industry representatives, state and federal personnel, and academia – have made significant progress toward accomplishing these goals. Following is a brief summary of the most important components of the Secure Milk Supply Plan:
Biosecurity – Efforts to contain the highly contagious FMD virus will require strict adherence to biosecurity processes and procedures. National biosecurity performance standards have already been developed for implementation during an FMD outbreak. Compliance with these standards should significantly reduce the chance of spreading the virus during the movement of raw milk from the collection point on farms to facilities that process the milk for human consumption. Industry and animal health authorities are encouraged to focus special attention on biosecurity performance standards and to develop a more detailed description of what will be effective, achievable, and also acceptable in any given state or region – where local industry practices and the local climate are also factored in. Several states and regions throughout the nation have already started working toward this goal.
Active observational surveillance training materials – In the absence of a “cow-side” test to detect FMD, dairies within a control area will have to implement a formalized process for either a daily herd inspection, or active observational surveillance. The latter is defined in the SMS Plan as “an active process for the detection of foot-and-mouth disease on dairy premises, utilizing trained observers (herd managers or workers) who are routinely monitoring animals on a daily basis for abnormal or increased occurrence of clinical signs compatible with FMD, or changes in food or water consumption, or milk production.” The materials needed to carry out such pre-event training are now being pilot tested and, after being finalized, will be made available in both English and Spanish.
Draft recommendations – A set of recommendations – fortified with supporting scientific justification pertaining to raw-milk handling and processing from farms in an FMD control area – has been drafted for pre-event review, discussion, and eventual incorporation into dairy processor and local/regional/national response plans. Although FMD poses no threat to public health from dairy products, consumer reaction to this animal disease caused by a lack of awareness may decrease the willingness of many citizens to purchase dairy products and thereby create a perceived public health threat. The draft recommendations are intended to keep all parties informed on ways to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus to food-producing animals, while at the same time maintaining a safe and wholesome food supply for consumers.
Proactive risk assessments – Risk assessments support the managed movement of animals and animal products during disease outbreaks. As an essential component of the SMS Plan, proactive risk assessments are being conducted to evaluate the risk that transporting raw milk from an FMD-infected, but undetected, dairy farm to later-stage processing facilities poses to the spread of the disease. The pathwaysentified in the risk assessments take into consideration current Grade A milk production practices as well as proposed mitigations, such as biosecurity performance standards. In the event of an outbreak, the results of the proactive risk assessments will help inform future movement and permitting decisions.
The Next Steps and Beyond
To ensure that all states and the dairy industry as a whole are working to establish effective business continuity plans, the national secure milk supply team continues to develop and refine the various preparedness components, and to facilitate both state and regional planning. Other critical daily movements within the dairy industry, such as the delivery of feed and the rearing of off-site calves and heifers, will be addressed in the future.
In the worst-case scenario, if FMD is diagnosed within the United States, it will become a national animal health emergency and severely impact the daily activities and economic viability of livestock producers, the industries that serve them, and the U.S. economy. Engaged preparedness planning and clear communications between industry and government prior to an FMD outbreak can help ensure significant improvements in the resiliency of the livestock industries and their ability to cope successfully with foreign animal diseases – and, by doing so, enhance the overall security of the nation’s livestock and food production systems. Outreach, awareness, and engagement plans and practices – all of which are critical for success – are ongoing.
Those involved in emergency preparedness planning at the state level should contact the National SMS Plan Development Team (firstname.lastname@example.org) to learn more about this deadly disease and how to prevent it.