June 25, 2020

How Farms Could Prevent Pandemics

Farms can serve as a guide for preventing pandemics

Preventing the next pandemic requires rigorous scientific research into where emerging diseases come from. A Vox article, “The meat we eat is a pandemic risk too,” cautions that we should be highly concerned about pathogens that spread through food animal populations.

It is true that the risk is there, as an estimated 60 percent of infectious diseases are zoonotic, meaning they can spread between animals and humans. The fact is that a risk of disease outbreaks exists whenever animals live near each other, and infectious diseases can spread on farms as well as in the wild. However, farmers and ranchers engaged in meat, milk and egg production are not in denial. That is why farmers, ranchers and researchers have worked side-by-side for decades to reduce risks of outbreaks and to protect animal and human health.

Farmers are constantly improving biosecurity—their livelihoods depend on it. Routine disease control measures include sanitizing animal housing and feeding equipment and installing “foot baths” for workers to clean their boots as they move from building to building on the farm. Visitors to swine farms, for example, routinely “suit up” in personal protective equipment, such as disposable gowns and booties, to avoid transporting pathogens onto or off of the farms. It is also common to isolate new animals for at least two weeks before they join a new herd. Farmers and ranchers know that animals can appear healthy yet still carry disease.

Farmers and ranchers also work closely with veterinarians to make sure a preventive health program is a standard part of animal care and animals receive the medical care they need, including vaccines and antibiotics. Judicious use of such therapeutics is important for prevention, control and treatment of bacterial infections and diseases in food animals and also safeguard animal welfare. Farmers, ranchers, veterinarians and animal scientists recognize the need to preserve medically important antibiotics for human use and have taken steps to slow the natural process of antibiotic resistance. It is also important to note that antibiotics have no effect on viral diseases.

Occasionally, disease outbreaks can occur on farms. Pathogens such as avian influenza (bird flu) have taken their toll. But farmers and ranchers have learned from disease outbreaks, and they have put effective disease control measures in place to reduce future risks. Such practices are common sense as their livelihoods depend on having healthy animals.

For example, rapid detection and intense surveillance have slowed the spread of a highly contagious disease in pigs called African swine fever. This disease is not zoonotic, but it offers a good example of how biosecurity measures can prevent a pandemic from spreading across the globe.

African swine fever moved out of Africa to Russia in 2007. It is highly contagious and has been devastating to many farms, but it has not yet spread to the United States thanks to proactive biosecurity measures. Should African swine fever spread, the United States Department of Agriculture already has a disease testing and tracking plan in place. Animal scientists and infectious disease specialists are already working on vaccines and therapies. There have also been public education campaigns to help people who work with pigs spot the symptoms in their herds.

Disease prevention, detection and control are top priorities in animal agriculture. In fact, the steps taken on farms and the work done by animal scientists are a valuable model for how we can control outbreaks in human populations. As we’ve seen from the COVID-19 pandemic, rapid disease detection and monitoring and public education can limit spread and save lives.

Learn more: 

Penn State Extension: Biosecurity: A Practical Approach