The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is taking heat from Congress’s nonpartisan watchdog agency over the way it has responded to outbreaks of so-called emerging diseases in livestock. A U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report faults USDA for not doing enough to respond to and investigate viral outbreaks in pigs in 2013 and 2014, as well as not doing nearly enough afterward to prevent and reduce the impact of future outbreaks.
In particular, GAO concluded that USDA erred by not requiring veterinarians and producers to report diseased animals, and by relying on voluntary reports instead. And it warns that new USDA policies aimed at avoiding similar problems in the future may prove difficult to implement. The report specifically refers to what USDA calls emerging diseases—economically damaging diseases that are either new to the United States or appear to be becoming more deadly or dangerous.
The findings are important, lawmakers and outside observers say, because they suggest the government is not fully prepared to track and respond to emerging diseases that could harm animal health, push up food prices, and, for some viruses, potentially spread to humans.
“Where will USDA go from here? That’s the million-dollar question that must be answered before the next outbreak,” said Representative Fred Upton (R–MI), who requested the report and chairs the House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce, in a statement. “From the integrity of our food supply to biosecurity, USDA’s actions created unnecessary risks.”
The report comes in the wake of outbreaks of two coronaviruses, known as porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) virus and porcine deltacoronavirus. Both affect pigs but have no known impact on humans. The emergence in the United States of the diseases—collectively known as swine enteric coronavirus diseases (SECDs)—drew national headlines for their impact on the U.S. pork industry, which exported $6 billion worth of products in 2014. (The United States was home to the world’s third-largest national pork industry in 2013.) Prices of pork products rose as the viruses killed millions of pigs.
Under the federal Animal Health Protection Act, USDA has the power to respond to disease outbreaks in a number of ways, including by requiring the reporting of disease cases—traditionally speaking, by veterinarians—and ordering the killing, seizure, and quarantine of animals. In 2013, however, USDA didn’t take regulatory measures as the pig viruses spread. Instead, agency officials assisted a voluntary, industry-led response, out of concern that regulation “could have had negative financial impacts on the swine industry,” according to GAO.
As a result, USDA had, among other issues, initially had trouble getting solid data on the outbreak. The voluntary testing data that USDA obtained had serious problems, GAO said; for instance, USDA couldn’t discern whether pig specimens were being tested for the first time, so the agency could only discern the general trend in infection numbers. Then, in June 2014, USDA shifted course, requiring infection reports not just from veterinarians, but also from laboratories and producers. That helped USDA improve its understanding of SECDs’ spread and infection rates, GAO says.
USDA has been drafting new guidance to help it respond to future emerging-disease outbreaks. Under the guidance, any person with knowledge of an infection would need to report it, “which closes a reporting gap for disease incidents where no accredited veterinarian examined the animal or conducted the testing," GAO said.
GAO, however, suggested that the new guidance is unclear in certain aspects. It doesn’t specify, for instance, the circumstances under which the agency would need to order quarantines or euthanasia. “Without a clearly defined response to such emerging animal diseases, response efforts could be slowed,” GAO said.
In a response, USDA said it “generally agreed” with GAO’s findings. “We had not faced anything like this before, and learned a great deal from it about our response strategy,” USDA wrote in a statement emailed to ScienceInsider. The agency is “now using that knowledge to work with our partners and stakeholders to implement our emerging diseases framework objectives in a transparent way.”
Tracking emerging diseases will require good collaboration between government, laboratories, and industry, says Jürgen Richt, a veterinary microbiologist at Kansas State University, Manhattan. An outbreak can pop up without warning, and “you cannot prepare specifically for it,” he says. “So only if we talk and work together, then, we can be prepared or understand what we need to do.” It’s especially important, he says, because human health could also be at stake; many animal viruses are capable of spreading to people.
USDA is now carrying out additional studies on how the pig viruses found their way into the United States. Preliminary findings released in September 2015 suggest that shipping containers holding items such as pig feed and pet treats might have transported PED to the United States.