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Coronavirus exposes vulnerabilities in food supply chain

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As the world continues to grapple with the spread of the coronavirus, it is clear that outbreaks of new infectious diseases are not one-off incidents.

In recent years, African Swine Fever (ASF) and Avian Influenza wreaked havoc on the food industry — this, on top of increasing pressures on the food supply chain our interconnected world is facing as the global population continues to grow. If nothing else, the current coronavirus crisis only magnifies the critical importance of a safe food supply chain and its impact on food security and public health. 

With international trade so fundamental to prosperity, health and environmental sustainability, we must clearly identify disease carriers and intervene at critical control points in order to keep trade flowing without compromising safety. Trade halts, quarantines and, even more challenging, the need to depopulate livestock farms, come at a high price for our food industry. 

Disease outbreaks have significant long-term implications on food security and they can adversely impact consumer confidence and hit brand values for years to come. Animal feed and associated raw materials are two such critical control points. By taking action to ensure they are pathogen-free, we can protect our global food supply and ensure both food safety and security. 

Most recently, the U.S. hog industry campaigned to raise awareness of the potential risks associated with ASF — a virus that has already resulted in the loss of half of China’s pig stocks. A study from Iowa State University found that an ASF outbreak in the United States could cost as much as $50 billion over 10 years. Livestock epidemics can cause substantial economic damage to agricultural industries, with annual cost estimates ranging from $900 million to almost $2 billion due to Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea (PED) outbreaks

American researcher Dr. Scott Dee, the director of Research for Pipestone Veterinary Services, has gone on record to suggest the ASF virus has probably already entered the United States, potentially as a result of contaminated feed ingredients, and it is only a matter of time before it infects a commercial swine operation if effective mitigation strategies are not implemented. 

Several recent Kansas State studies demonstrate the role of animal feed as a carrier in ASF transmission. Improving the quality and safety of animal feed, including the responsible use of feed sanitization treatments, has been scientifically proven to help prevent disease outbreaks without compromising animal welfare or workers’ safety

The importance of livestock and poultry health is critical to our collective economic, health and environmental wellbeing. Corporate stakeholders, government officials and regulators — working collaboratively — must ensure best practices and effective procurement policies are in place to prevent epidemics and prioritize public health and food security.

The stakes are high. Pandemics stand to be part of our future. Working together with governments, the livestock industry can immediately and meaningfully impact food safety, protecting our livestock and citizens as a result. In the long run, our food security depends on it.

Dr. John R. Clifford, DVM is the former Chief Veterinary Officer of the United States and a former chief trade advisor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Tags African swine fever virus Agriculture Avian flu Coronavirus COVID-19 COVID19 food supply food supply chain Pandemic swine flu

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