New body needed to thwart threat of livestock epidemic, says group

Livestock groups and processors back creation of Animal Health Canada to prevent a devastating disease outbreak

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency tweeted this image as part of its efforts to raise awareness of the threat posed by African swine fever. 
But the federal agency is just one of many organizations working to prevent a major animal disease outbreak here.
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Avian influenza, H1N1 flu and now African swine fever have all posed threats to Canada’s livestock sector.

And while there are a host of regulations overseen by numerous organizations, it’s a patchwork that leaves the country vulnerable to a devastating disease outbreak, says a group representing both livestock, dairy and poultry associations and leading meat and dairy processors.

Rory McAlpine. photo: Supplied

“The current model is not broken (but) we could improve drastically,” said Rory McAlpine, a senior official with Maple Leaf Foods and co-chair of the group calling for a single national body to thwart the threat of an animal disease epidemic.

“We have different networks for surveillance for different diseases in different parts of the country. There’s definitely networks and information sharing, but it isn’t as cohesive as it needs to be. We’re rather slow in making the investments to prevent the next disease risk.”

The threat is real, McAlpine and two other senior industry officials said at a recent commentary calling for the creation of a body to be called Animal Health Canada.

“Over the past 30 years we have survived more than a few crisis events and ‘near misses’ in multiple species, including the human species where the disease in question had an animal origin (who can forget 2003 when we experienced both BSE and SARS),” states the commentary written by McAlpine, Bruce Archibald, a former president of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Dr. Allan Preston, a former chief veterinary officer for Manitoba.

“We have had no shortage of strategies, coalitions, information networks, programs and tools… but it is not good enough. For a largely export-dependent supply chain, that drives half of all farm income and provides 200,000 Canadian jobs, it is not nearly good enough.”

Canada did receive high marks for its traceability system, network of laboratories, and overall level of resources in an assessment by the World Organization for Animal Health, the leading international authority on animal diseases.

“But it did note there’s a lack of public-private partnership,” said McAlpine, who is Maple Leaf Foods’ senior vice-president of government and industry relations.

“There’s too much segregation of responsibility. It’s not a partnership. There’s certainly a lot of consultation and information sharing, but we need to take it to the next level.”

Quick action needed

And African swine fever has shown that more needs to be done — and done quickly, McAlpine, Archibald and Preston wrote in their commentary.

“The threat is from border-closing foreign animal diseases and, more importantly, Canada’s sluggish and fragmented system to prevent, prepare, respond and recover from them,” they stated.

“Everyone in animal agriculture knows about the devastation of African swine fever — it is now likely that China has lost half of its hog production and the virus continues its deadly march across nine adjacent countries. Closer to home, whether it is equine strangles in Ontario, porcine epidemic diarrhea in Manitoba or bovine TB in British Columbia, production-limiting animal disease pressures are very real and growing…

“With African swine fever knocking on the door, we need a new deadbolt.”

The swine fever epidemic has hastened the need for a new national body.

“It’s kind of testing the concept of Animal Health Canada in some ways,” said McAlpine. “We’ve got all the species group represented in a working group and a CEO group that is working through the analysis and the assessment of our strengths and weaknesses and what would be the governance model.”

Although the initiative only started last year (at the urging of Maple Leaf Foods and a government-industry advisory group called the National Farmed Animal Health and Welfare Council), its backers want to see Animal Health Canada up and running by 2021.

There must be a partnership between industry and government able to quickly assess emerging animal disease threats and have the regulatory authority to institute quick — and co-ordinated — action, said McAlpine.

“There’s a vast number of resources across government and industry, but our feeling was that we needed to bring this together into a cohesive model to improve the timeliness of decision-making and the investment in preventive action to try to be further ahead in preventing emerging risks,” he said.

Countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and the Netherlands have already “created models that are much more of a partnership and put in place greater financial certainty to manage animal health that we lack in Canada,” he added.

In addition to having initiatives such as traceability systems overseen by a single body and reducing duplication, Animal Health Canada would look at things such as where veterinary resources may be lacking, or where surveillance or vaccine research needs to be improved.

“There’s a whole series of things we believe could be executed more efficiently under a different model,” said McAlpine.

“Vaccine research is happening, but we should have been focusing more efforts on vaccine research a few years ago. If we had this kind of body, we could be looking to the future and making decisions to prevent risk and be reactive to the risk.”

Animal Health Canada would be closely allied with the government, but would be semi-autonomous. It would also be accountable because it would need significant government funding.

But an arm’s-length structure would enable it to make decisions more rapidly, using science-based information, said McAlpine.

Earlier this month, the working group and a “CEOs champion group” (which includes Alberta’s Bob Lowe, vice-president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association) met to discuss items such as a governance model, a legal structure and funding.

“I think we’ve got $180,000 of financial contributions made by industry and governments to support the consulting work,” said McAlpine. “We’ve got a lot of in-kind contributions made by various organizations and the government of Canada so it is really great that we’ve got people who will put skin in the game in terms of all of this work.”

Along with the CCA, other farm groups supporting the initiative include the National Cattle Feeders Association, Canadian Pork Council, Dairy Farmers of Canada, and poultry associations.

In the coming year, the group plans to bring specific recommendations to federal, provincial and territorial agricultural ministers. The ag ministers were briefed on the initiative when they met this summer, said McAlpine.

“It’s all very in line with the national plant and animal health strategy, which was adopted about three years ago,” he said.

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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