Human & animal health, food security & biosecurity

biosecurity programmes

Curtis R Youngs from Iowa State University probes the relationship between human and animal health in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, including comment on the food system & biosecurity programmes

Biosecurity. This single word invokes a wide range of thoughts among members of society. For some, it brings visions of a doomsday movie where a virology research laboratory is breached by unsavoury individuals who subsequently unleash a new plague on humankind. For others, it stimulates thoughts of calmness and safety – knowing that strict protocols and safety measures are in place to safeguard against the unintentional release of dangerous biological agents that harm humans, plants or animals. For yet others, especially those engaged in the production of animal-source foods, it raises thoughts of a routine set of actions practised routinely to protect not only the health and well-being of livestock, but also the integrity of a major part of the human food supply.

Impacts of COVID-19

The devastating and ongoing impacts of COVID-19 have unquestionably been felt across the globe. Even among persons with little background or interest in biology, the emergence in 2019 of a novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) that created a human health pandemic catapulted biological topics such as viruses, immunology and messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) into normal/everyday discussions. There is still much to be learned scientifically about the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the disease it causes (COVID-19), such as the precise origin of the virus, the range of mammalian species it can infect, and the persistence of anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies resulting from vaccination; however, one point is abundantly clear – the world has been forever changed.

Many people believe that SARS-CoV-2 has transitioned from pandemic to endemic, meaning the virus (and the disease it causes) are here to stay. Whether this is true or not, remains to be seen; however, there have been some bright spots that resulted from this pandemic. Many workers are now able to work from home, reducing their time commitment for commuting and the adverse environmental impact of commuting. Businesses and educational institutions learned a more cost-effective and often less time-consuming method of fulfilling their missions – videoconferencing. Novel applications of science to the development of vaccines arose. Governmental agencies re-examined the process through which vaccines are approved. Ordinary citizens became keenly aware that animal health and human health are intertwined.

COVID-19: Human and animal health

Within the scientific community, it has been known for many decades that human health and animal health are not independent of one another. Calvin Schwabe is often credited for more or less defining the concept of “One Health” in 1984, with the hope of obtaining greater recognition and understanding within the scientific community and general populous that a comprehensive view of human health cannot and must not ignore animal health. The “One Health” concept has been expanded to include environmental health and non-domestic animal health (i.e., wildlife, including those managed in zoos), clearly underscoring the interconnectedness of life on planet earth.

The COVID-19 pandemic thrust the “One Health” concept into the spotlight. Detection of COVID-19 in companion animals and wildlife illustrated the need for a holistic, collaborative approach to human, animal, plant, and environmental health. Many weaknesses in the human food system were revealed during the pandemic. Severe disruptions in food supply chains, ranging from breakdowns in transportation to cessation of activity in abattoirs due to worker illnesses, led to empty shelves in many grocery stores. Significant closures of restaurants and food service industries led to excess products accumulating in warehouses – an extremely problematic issue concerning perishable foods. In some instances, fields of vegetables were ploughed under, and milk was dumped on the ground. Unemployment skyrocketed, affecting the ability of many families to buy food while concomitantly substantially increasing pressures placed on food pantries.

The food system & biosecurity programmes

The previously undocumented fragility in the human food system that was revealed during the pandemic has caused those engaged in animal agriculture to consider the societal impacts of a potential animal health pandemic more closely. It has led to greater scrutiny of biosecurity practices – practices designed to keep disease-causing organisms from inflicting harm on animals, people, the human food supply, and the environment. Well-designed biosecurity programmes address not only the design and functionality of structures in which animals are raised but also the practices and procedures followed by people who care for the animals.

Many citizens keep their companion animals (dogs and cats) healthy and safe by vaccinating them against disease-causing organisms, feeding them properly, and raising them in a regulated environment where temperature, humidity, and exposure to the environment are controlled. Despite the best efforts of those animal owners, however, sometimes their companion animals become sick. Sometimes animal owners also become ill from a disease carried by their pets. Zoonotic diseases are those diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans.

The same situation is true for many farm animal species such as poultry and swine. Despite widespread vaccination, isolation (quarantining) of infected individuals and rearing in a controlled environment, some farm animals become sick. Perhaps one difference between companion animals and farm animals is that some species of farm animals are reared at a higher animal density. This increased number of animals within a given space can lead to an increased likelihood of disease transmission among animals when a disease emerges. It is for that reason that well-designed and implemented biosecurity measures are very important. Another difference is that some farm animals contribute animal-source foods to the human food supply – which directly influences human health and wellbeing.

Some common elements are included in most biosecurity plans, such as limiting human and animal movement into and out of the environment where animals are raised and wearing clean clothes and personal protective items such as disposable boots and coveralls. These biosecurity practices typically are implemented at the individual farm level, and if done properly, are highly effective. Yet, the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus, which caused significant issues with bird health five to six years ago, pointed to the need to consider biosecurity measures on a broader scale. For many nations, this broader perspective falls under the purview of the national government.

Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)

In the United States (U.S.), a division within the U.S. Department of Agriculture called the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has had responsibility since 1972 to protect the health of U.S. agriculture and natural resources against invasive pests and diseases. Personnel at APHIS work with other nations’ governments, the World Organisation for Animal Health (more commonly known as OIE), and universities to use the latest scientific evidence to develop and implement policies and procedures to protect and improve the health, quality, and marketability of animals and animal products.

Working with entities such as the Iowa State University Center for Food Security and Public Health, APHIS helps develop plans to reduce the likelihood of a foreign animal disease outbreak, such as African Swine Fever, on U.S. soil. It also helps develop emergency preparedness plans that outline how federal and state animal health officials can work with livestock producers and others to contain the spread of a pathogen that causes disease in animals. The work of APHIS and their collaborators protect animal health, human health, and the supply of food for humans.


Please note: This is a commercial profile

© 2019. This work is licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND.

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Professor & M.E. Ensminger Endowed Chair of International Animal Agriculture
Iowa State University
Phone: +1 515 294 5541
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