Emergency planners and agriculture officials have spent this week testing their preparedness for a deadly pig disease outbreak.
The State Emergency Operations Center in Johnston hosted representatives from every sector that might be involved in the response to an outbreak of African swine fever: state and federal agriculture department veterinarians and emergency planners, pork industry leaders, law enforcement officers, farmers from other agriculture sectors, state lawmakers, staff from all of Iowa’s members of Congress and media.
The simulation, which was coordinated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, also included 13 other top pork-producing states.
Each of the four days focused on a particular aspect of an outbreak, from initial confirmation of the virus’ presence to potentially issuing a stop-movement order that would ban transport of pigs, feed, manure and carcasses, to the complications related to euthanizing infected animals and disposing of them.
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig and Iowa’s state veterinarian, Jeff Kaisand, were both involved in the 2015 outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza, which raised some similar challenges. One lesson Naig says state officials learned then is that emergency plans need to be kept current.
“Plans are good. They sit on shelves and collect dust. That’s not good,” he told reporters part way through the simulation. “Plans that are exercised, planning is better.”
Naig says the simulation poked some holes in existing plans.
“We are absolutely finding things that need to be addressed, both here in our planning but also at the national level as well,” he said, “and that’s exactly what this is supposed to do.”
Barbara Porter-Spalding, a veterinarian with the USDA’s national preparedness and incident coordination team, which led the exercise from the Washington, D.C. area, says a really important aspect of the simulation was to bring in as many pork producers and people from within the industry as they could. The four-day event is the culmination of nearly a year of smaller emergency preparedness exercises and she says the value of the real-time simulation is that people feel the urgency. Big challenges like disposing of full barns of sick hogs are hard to consider in the abstract.
“Until you sit around the table and really start to talk about it, people don’t really wrap their minds around it,” she said, “but once they start to talk about it and really sit down and think, then they’ve been able to come up with some possible solutions.”
Kaisand said every effort would be made to keep infected carcasses in place, which could mean needing to dispose of many on-site, a challenge that was hard enough with chickens back in 2015. But beyond that, he was reluctant to give any specifics about how carcasses would be buried, composted or otherwise disposed of.
Naig says the most important step is to make every effort to prevent African swine fever from entering North America. If the virus arrives, it could still be kept out of the swine herd through strict adherence to biosecurity measures. But, he says, if a case is confirmed, a fast and aggressive response would be necessary to contain it.
African swine fever poses no threat to humans but could be economically devastating for Iowa’s pork sector. Iowa has more hogs than any other state and the Iowa Department of Agriculture estimates in the first year of an outbreak the state could see revenue losses of more than $16 million. Export markets would immediately be closed to U.S. pork, flooding the domestic market and dragging down prices for farmers.