The U.S. livestock industry has long benefited from the security of isolation, however, we’ve seen that nothing is untouchable. U.S. Department of Homeland Security Director, Tom Ridge, has pointed to the food supply and U.S. agriculture as potential targets for terrorism. You have heard the warnings, but have you heeded them?

Hopefully it will never happen, but the threat of terrorist attacks or the introduction of highly contagious foreign animal diseases into the United States is real.

Anthrax has already been used against our citizens, points out Nolan Hartwig, DVM, Iowa State University. “Our livestock industry is vulnerable, especially to several highly contagious foreign animal diseases that could be introduced into herds and flocks,” he says.

Such examples of threatening pathogens include foot-and-mouth disease, hog cholera, African swine fever, rinderpest and many others.

Introduction at key locations and natural spread through the U.S. livestock industry would have tremendous major impact not only on the production industry, but all segments of the food system, as well at the national economy.

The vast amount of livestock movement in the United States ups this risk. “Livestock producers and all others associated with the livestock industry should be alert to unusual activities and take all possible precautions, including physical security of their operations,” says Hartwig.

He offers the following suggestions to producers in terms of securing their herds, facilities and overall business. 

Implement Physical Security

  • Limit access to your operation to responsible individuals that you know well. Make sure that anyone entering an operation or even an agribusiness serving livestock operations is identified and cleared.
  • Have a sign-in sheet for all individuals entering a livestock unit or agribusiness, or keep your own records.
  • Post a sign forbidding entrance without permission.
  • Secure all feed, equipment and other supplies used in livestock production as much as possible.
  • Keep a record of all livestock, feed and supply purchases and deliveries.
  • Call local law enforcement personnel if unusual activity is encountered or suspected.

Implement Fundamental Biosecurity:

  • Purchase feed and all other supplies from known, reputable firms and individuals.
  • Maintain a closed herd if possible or practical.
  • When purchasing any livestock, insist that health papers signed by the veterinarian who serves the herd of origin are provided prior to animal delivery.
  • Isolate all animals coming into the operation for a period of 30 days, 45 days if possible. Ensure that this is a true quarantine, which means restricting movement of people, vehicles, equipment and other supplies between the isolation group and the main herd.
  • Observe weaned pig and feeder pig deliveries closely for at least 30 days.
  • Observe all livestock at least once a day for signs of disease, including lameness, appetite loss, drooling, lethargy or sudden death.
  • Have a veterinarian examine individual animals, as well as the entire herd, if any disease signs are noted. 
  • Have a veterinarian conduct a post-mortem examination on any animal with an unexplained death.
  • Submit biological specimens to a diagnostic laboratory if the cause of a disease problem is not obvious.
  • Any person entering a livestock facility should wear clean clothing – ideally provided by the farm. They should wear rubber footwear and walk through a disinfectant before and after visiting the operation. Shower-in/shower-out protocols may be helpful, but growing evidence suggests that the most important step is to thoroughly wash one’s hands.

    These procedures also need to apply to non-industry service personnel such as plumbers, carpenters, pest exterminators and the like.

  • Packages and equipment that enter the facility need to be addressed as well. Ensure that boxes and supplies are clean and dry before they enter the facility. For example, sitting a box on a wet or dirty floor and then passing it into the building only increases your exposure risk.   
  • All vehicles coming onto the farm should be clean, as should all equipment and tools used in or near the operation.
  • Pay special attention to livestock trucks and trailers, manure loaders and spreaders, tractors, portable livestock chutes and other fomites that could easily spread disease from one operation to another.
  • Control rodents and birds in and around your operation, as well as insects such as flies and mosquitoes.
  • Immediately dispose of all dead livestock after examination. Provide a secure place where pick-up vehicles do not have to enter or come near livestock units.
  • Livestock exhibitions, other than terminal shows, should be avoided if possible.
  • Don’t allow anyone who has been on a farm in a foreign country to visit your livestock units for seven days following their entry into the United States.
  • Biological materials, including animal-health products, should only be used if approved by the herd veterinarian.
  • Don’t allow any human food products to enter the production premises.

Of course, these suggestions don’t fully address covert activities.

Perimeter fencing around the entire production facility is one protective option. While that’s expensive, it’s less expensive than a foreign animal disease outbreak. Installing an alarm system is another option, as is locking buildings when everyone is gone from the site.

Educate everyone involved in the operation about various disease risks and symptoms. Also, instruct them on what to do if there’s a suspected problem. Your herd veterinarian, state animal-health department or university swine specialist can assist with this task. You should also have a list of contact numbers posted at various sites within your operation.

There’s no way to insure that your herd is 100 percent safe, but you can do your part to control the risk by implementing these and other steps.  

What to Do? Where to Turn?

Many potential bioterrorism agents affect both humans and animals, so keeping an eye on U.S. health is a complicated task.

The University of Minnesota veterinary school provides the following insight and advice:

  • Terrorists may target animal agriculture to disrupt the economy and trade, or jeopardize the food supply.
  • Ideal agents are highly infectious and contagious, survive well, virulent, easy to acquire and reproduce. They are easy to disseminate, and they mimic natural disease.
  • On-farm personnel, including producers, employees and veterinarians, are critical to identifying early disease exposure whether it’s naturally occurring or due to human intervention – accidental or intentional.
  • Prompt clinical examination, sample collection and diagnostic workups are keys to early recognition.
  • Timely implementation of key disease-control practices can reduce transmission to other animals or humans.
  • Risk management may include destruction of affected animals, treatment of ill animals, prophylactic treatment of exposed animals and vaccination.

USDA’s Veterinary Services officials are encouraging everyone involved in disease diagnosis, animal movement or livestock production and marketing, to be watchful for unusual symptoms and activities.   “No potential foreign animal disease cases should be disregarded,” say officials. “Potential hoaxes should be treated as suspect incursions of a disease until proven otherwise.”

VS officials suggest that you be particularly alert to these five signs:

1. Sudden, unexplained death loss of animals in the herd.

2. Severe illness affecting a high   percentage of animals.

3. Blistering around an animal’s mouth, nose, teats or hooves.

4. Unusual ticks or maggots.

5. Staggering, falling or central-nervous system disorders.

If you see anything unusual, contact your local law-enforcement authorities immediately and notify your state animal health office, and/or state veterinarian.

For Your Reference

Keep reference materials pertaining to human and animal diseases readily available. Know where to go for additional information. Be familiar with other members of the public and animal-health infrastructure.

  • Merck’s Veterinary Manual – A compendium of concise descriptions about animal diseases, their epidemiology, treatment and prevention
  • Animal Health Association’s Control of Communicable Diseases Manual – A handbook of human communicable diseases, with zoonotic disease descriptions, major risk factors, treatment and prevention.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
  • Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service,
  • Local contacts: These would include your state’s Board of Animal Health Department or state veterinarian, Department of (human) Health, and the Department of Agriculture. Collect and make available the related telephone numbers, and check out the Web sites.

Trained foreign animal disease diagnosticians exist within the state Board of Animal Health and federal Veterinary Services. These veterinary specialists can provide expert consultation free-of-charge for animals or herds showing suspicious clinical signs or unexpected illness and death loss.