Delays by the U.S. Department of Agriculture helped make the outbreak of a fast-spreading pig virus worse, according to a federal watchdog agency.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a critical report last month on the USDA’s handling of 2013’s outbreak of porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) virus. (pdf)
PED appeared in the United States in 2013 and as we’ve previously reported, it took USDA more than a year to make it mandatory to report cases of the disease. Earlier mandatory reporting, the new report found, could have helped control the outbreak and also might have led to information about how the virus got here. That’s a question the GAO says may now never be resolved, though some veterinarians have speculated that imported swine feed may have contained the virus.
The GAO found that USDA didn’t act sooner because officials thought doing so might cause “negative financial impacts on the industry.” The rampant spread of the disease ultimately killed nearly 10 percent of the national swine herd.
Perhaps more troubling, the non-partisan investigative branch of the federal government reported that USDA’s failure to have a planned response to an emerging animal disease proved “inconsistent with federal standards for internal control.” In other words, the USDA failed to follow its own rules.
The report finds faults with the USDA’s handling of the outbreak, and two related viruses that arrived on the scene shortly after PED, that could raise concerns among taxpayers about how the federal agency is managing its responsibilities to the public. And although consumers were mostly insulated from the disease, save for a pork price spike in summer 2014, the public very definitely got a look at the impact of production animal diseases when avian influenza swept through the Midwest egg and turkey sectors last year. And many poultry farmers were critical of USDA’s response to that. A different strain of bird flu arrived in Indiana earlier this year.
Many in the hog industry, however, caution that more governmental involvement may not make the industry safer.
Paul Sundberg is the executive director of the Swine Health Information Center, an entity created by the National Pork Board in response to the PED outbreak. He’s one of the many swine industry insiders who spoke with GAO for the report. Sundberg says a lesson hog producers, veterinarians and others took from the PED experience is that they need to take care of themselves. Absent a governmental response, Sundberg said farmers started talking to each other.
“The producers took it upon themselves to tell each other, `Hey I've got PED on this farm,’” Sundberg said. “That was a big step. That's why I say it kind of coalesced the industry to start talking and start sharing disease location information.”
Sundberg also said he didn’t think earlier reporting to USDA would have helped with the epidemiological questions.
Mandatory reporting of PED, Sundberg said, “has not been as successful in helping to control the disease as USDA would like to communicate.”
Sundberg also agreed with one of the GAO report’s major findings, that from the day in 2013 when USDA told the swine industry, in a conference call, that PED was in the country, USDA did not seem to have a plan. The reason has to do with the way different diseases are classified. PED fell into a category of animal disease that was known to exist abroad, had never been found in the United States and did not impact human health. It was called a “transboundary disease,” distinct from a “foreign animal disease.” Though the two terms might seem synonymous, for USDA’s purposes the difference is that a transboundary disease does not require putting in place a reaction plan in advance of an infection. A foreign animal disease does. Bird flu, for example, triggered a planned response from USDA.
Here at Harvest, our reaction to the GAO report was that it might hold USDA more accountable for swift response to animal diseases in the future. That sounds like a positive thing, to protect animals, the industry and potentially the public. But Sundberg sees it differently.
“It could put pressure on USDA to take more regulatory authority more quickly,” he said, “in the event of one of these transboundary disease outbreaks.”
Sundberg’s fear is that a mandated response could be outsized, causing more harm to producers than an industry-led response, in cooperation with state and federal animal health officials. In fact, he said the purpose of the Swine Health Information Center is to get proactive plans in place.
“Everybody would like to have a more robust cooperative, state-federal-industry response to emerging diseases,” he said. “There's no doubt about that.”