Tuesday, January 25, 2011

British Columbia government reviews Animal Health Policies

The BC government is currently reviewing its Animal Health Policy, and has started with a public consultationhttp://www.agf.gov.bc.ca/ahc/ahb/animal_health_policy_in_BC.pdf. The deadline was Jan 23rd, but because of a computer glitch the online survey closed early so the deadline is now extended to January 31st. At first glance to someone who doesn't farm it appears to be quite reasonable, with increased surveillance, inspections and registrations of farms.  But to livestock farmers there are a few holes in the plan. Many people may not even be aware of the perfect storm of events occurring in our province. There is a lack of funding for good educational extension services to farmers, increased imports of food with a leaky border that does not inspect every container entering the country, and a highly mobile public that can bring contaminated food into the country at any time. In the foot and mouth disease outbreak in the UK in 2001, the cause was pig swill contaminated with meat originating from a country where foot and mouth disease was endemic. Although the meat would not harm humans, it was fed to pigs who became incubators for the virus, which then spread on the air to neighbouring farms with cows. Cows and sheep are highly sensitive to foot and mouth disease, especially the young animals. It is a disease that is extremely easy to spread once started. This worse case scenario is used as the basis for a revamping of the animal health act and most farmers who are aware of the ramifications are supportive of some changes, although they are concerned about an over-emphasis at the farm level, especially if their farm becomes a target. The Chief Veterinary Officer of BC, Dr. Paul Kitching, was directly involved with the foot and mouth disease outbreak in the UK, and he has expressed concern that the popularity of small and urban farming in particular could result in such an outbreak through a revival in small scale pig raising.
Farmers are aware of the fallout from animal disease outbreaks in Canada, notably from BSE in cattle in 2003 which resulted in dramatically reduced prices for beef and sheep. Then there was the avian flu outbreak in the Fraser Valley in 2004 resulting in the depopulation of 20 million chickens.  Last summer in BC there was a false-positive brucellosis scare that resulted in a temporary dip in beef prices (just when Pender Island farmers shipped some beef for sale!!). Last year, a scrapie outbreak in Alberta resulted in the quarantine and testing of three BC sheep flocks, which were subsequently found to be free of scrapie. Few people probably remember the last foot and mouth disease outbreak in Canada. It occurred in Saskatchewan in 1952 – by feeding infected European meat to pigs.
Good preventative measures by government and farmers, good extension services to provide up to date information and education to producers, and an efficient and effective traceability system are critical to minimize the impact of a serious disease outbreak.
Child's art after the outbreak in Cumbria, UK 2001
National producer associations are committed to traceability for Canadian livestock and poultry through a system that will trace individual animals through the supply chain and other movements off the farm (breeding stock sales, fairs and exhibitions, grazing away from the home farm). This is intended to aid in the rapid identification of exposed livestock in the event of a serious disease outbreak, thus minimizing the unnecessary destruction of animals and also minimizing unnecessary distress to the farmer and their family.
Until this fall, BC sheep, goat and swine producers had a part time provincial sheep specialist. Recent correspondence with the BC Ministry of Agriculture indicate that a replacement will not be made due to financial hardship by the ministry, leaving farm organizations to take up the slack as much as possible.
More and more new farmers do not have any experience in agriculture, as our population becomes more urban. Without good extension services and education, there is added risk to accidental disease transmission or breaches to traceability, putting all of our farms at risk. Most producers rely on each other, their farm associations and the internet (which may not be accurate or relevant) and would need extra emotional support in the case of a severe animal disease outbreak, requiring quarantine or depopulation. Livestock producers care about their animals and this must be taken into consideration, since losses can be more than financial. I have concerns that the ever-reducing budget of the BC Ministry of Agriculture will not support an expanded animal health policy, unless there are immediate measures to provide the needed support services for our farm community.
2001 UK Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak in Cumbria

Foot and mouth pyre at a farm in the UK 2001

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