May 4, 2011
Zoonotic disease expert advises Homeland Security of threats to agricultural supply chain
It has been estimated that a pound of meat -- whether beef, chicken or pork -- generally travels about 1,000 miles from farm to fork.
That's why a Kansas State University zoonotic disease expert cautioned officials at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that the nation's food supply is at risk.
Juergen Richt is Regents Distinguished Professor and director of the Department of Homeland Security's Center of Excellence for Emerging and Animal Diseases, or CEEZAD. He spoke recently at the department's Science Summit Conference in Washington, D.C.
"Our agricultural supply chain here in the United States is under threat because of our remarkable mobility that permits animals, people, food, diseases and even terrorists to move around the world with impunity," Richt said.
Richt outlined six challenges for various foreign and zoonotic diseases -- animal diseases that cross the species barrier to infect people and vice versa. First of all, he said there is a challenge for scientists to understand how pathogens behave. Secondly, there is a challenge for pharmaceutical firms to manufacture the necessary vaccines and antimicrobial drugs quickly. This brings the challenge to international agencies and national governments to fund and distribute those vaccines and antiviral agents.
Richt also said that it's a challenge for farmers and firms to protect their animals and workers, not to mention a challenge for physicians, nurses and families to care for those who are ill. Finally, he said there is a challenge for politicians, public health officials and households to respond with resilience and calmness.
"The scale of this challenge is indicated by the fact that in the past two decades there have been numerous outbreaks of infectious diseases, each of which has cost its host country at least $350 million," Richt said. "The most serious recent outbreaks have all begun in animals."
Included is severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which cost China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada and other nations some $50 billion. Foot and mouth disease cost the United Kingdom some $30 billion, and bovine spongiform encephalopathy cost the United Kingdom $13 billion. Numerous outbreaks of avian flu in Asia, North America and Europe cost more than $10 billion.
Richt said it is the unpredictability of emerging diseases that makes it essential to introduce an effective system of animal identification in the United States to ensure animal traceability. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has now taken the lead in a new effort to codify federal regulations and require an interstate certificate of veterinary inspection for all livestock moved from state to state.
Although producers and distributors of livestock are concerned by the costs of implementing an animal identification system in the United States, Richt said such costs are minimal compared to the costs of a major animal disease outbreak. He said that the efficient control and eradication of foot and mouth disease can't be achieved without traceability data to identify the location of infected animals.
Richt emphasized the need to link human medicine and veterinary medicine.
"The opening line of Charles Dickens' novel 'A Tale of Two Cities' summarizes what I have tried to communicate," Richt said. "Remember when Dickens wrote, 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness'? Today it's the best of times when we develop policies that are grounded in one health -- linking human and veterinary medicine with an ecologically healthy environment. It's the worst of times when we think that we can ignore the possibility of a major disease outbreak in the U.S. We are confronted with many challenges, but given sufficient determination and funding these challenges can be met."