Whether or not you have actually played the game known as “whack a mole,” you have a pretty good idea of the concept. A series of “critter holes” layout in front of you, while your task is to anticipate which one the mole might pop out of, and then whack him before he gets away. You have to constantly anticipate the next spot.

If we (and by that I mean Americans) are not careful, that could be what we face in terms of animal health, food safety and public health.

Those of us within the food production system understand that a healthy animal is the best way to insure food safety and public health. We know that raising healthy animals requires a systems approach—where the genetics, nutrition, facility, husbandry and management, health care and more, influence the outcome. You can have the best genetics in the world and feed the animal exactly right, but if the feeders restrict feed intake or you ignore a health challenge, there will be consequences. You can’t focus on getting the ventilation system set correctly and then allow feeders to run empty.

It certainly would be nice to be able to diagnose and fix a signal challenge and be assured everything will proceed without a hitch. But that’s not reality. Raising, processing, distributing and preparing food involves a complex series of systems. Actions in one sector can have unintended consequences in another. You can whack a mole here, but where else might it pop up?

There is push, whether by activists, lawmakers, regulators or consumers, to make significant changes in the way farm animals are raised. However, there’s not the same awareness or concern about what happens when you fiddle with one area and what might pop up elsewhere in the system as a result.  

Fortunately, just this week a six-member task force organized by the non-profit Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) released a report that looked at this issue in detail. The team of experts examined the relationship between animal health, food safety and public health, and consumers’ increasing demand for a risk-free food system.

“This is an attempt to review the literature regarding animal health and food safety and determine what research is needs to be conducted to determine the connection between the care and health of food animals and food safety,” says Alan Mathew, task force member and animal science department chair at Purdue University.

There are always tradeoffs, is task force chairmen Scott Hurd’s message. Hurd is currently an associate professor of veterinary medicine at Iowa State University, but he’s also a former USDA deputy undersecretary for food safety.

“What’s the Salmonella incidence in caged hens versus non-caged hens,” he asks. “I’ve never seen that data. But that’s the type of information that we need to make these types of (production/housing) decisions.”   

He also points to animal health and how multiple factors impact the outcome throughout the system. “Antibiotics use is not the only issue that impacts animal health,” he notes. “If you change the production system at the same time you reduce antibiotics or stress the animal in another way, you compromise the animal going into the packing plant.”    

It’s not the visibly ill animals that raise the most concern, those are the easy ones to spot and address; there are well-established provisions for sorting them or trimming out the problem. But the sub-clinically ill animals are a more subtle challenge. Hurd points to research that shows hog carcasses that required trimming on the line due to pre-slaughter infections are 90 percent more likely to be contaminated with Salmonella.

His point-- before taking too many options out of the producers’ on-farm tool-box, we need to consider, and research, the possible unintended consequences elsewhere. “Small changes in animal health have a big impact on public health, and more contaminated product means more food safety and public health risks.

"The connection between animal health and public health is much stronger than has been realized before," Hurd adds.

The CAST task force talked with media and visited with folks on Capitol Hill this past week to share their report, further explain the systems approach and the importance of careful assessment in making changes.

You can access the peer-reviewed report “The Direct Relationship Between Animal Health and Food Safety Outcomes” free of charge. It may take a bit of time, but you should read and familiarize yourself with the report, and more importantly, make it part of your discussions. After all it is an election year, and between the pressures coming with regard to animal welfare, antibiotics, GMOs and the pervasive “factory farm” mentality, there’s never been more of a need to explain your system and what it means to food safety and public health.

In the meantime, the CAST paper and task force have outlined future research needs. Combined with your efforts, these steps can build the base needed to prevent random changes in farm animal production from being a not-so-amusing game of food safety whack a mole.