In 1985, his first year as a staff veterinarian for the state of Arkansas, Conley Byrd was sent to Star City to check on a suspected outbreak of anthrax. Suspicions confirmed, Byrd and colleagues dealt with the disease and several other outbreaks that followed.
Byrd says one thing was apparent: a comprehensive plan was needed to deal with such diseases.
He hopes that plan, worked on for years, will never have to be utilized. But Byrd, state veterinarian for the last three years, says he wouldn't bet the farm it won't be.
“This plan is near to my heart because I believe it's the centerpiece of everything we do or should be doing to protect the livestock industry. The plan has been in the works for over three years. In retrospect, with the foot-and-mouth outbreak in the U.K., our working on this for so long was rather fortuitous,” says Byrd.
If foot-and-mouth ever shows up in America, Delta animals aren't likely to be the first victims. But, whether inside the state or not, Arkansas wouldn't wait for confirmation before acting, says Byrd.
“If there's a strong suspicion it's elsewhere in the country, we anticipate that Arkansas' governor will issue a bio-security alert. That alert asks that everyone voluntarily implement bio-security procedures on their farms. That means access to farms will be strictly controlled.”
If the suspicion is later confirmed, because of the rapidity with which livestock move in this country, the governor would likely declare the state's borders closed to livestock movement — both in and out. That would allow Byrd and colleagues to ascertain whether or not the state had received any animals that might be harboring disease.
How far back would officials go to look?
“At least two or three weeks. Some of that would depend on what the disease is, its incubation period, and what species it's in,” says Byrd.
If Arkansas indeed had a suspicious case, the suspect farms would be quarantined and examined. If lab confirmation of disease comes back, “we'll draw circles around the farms and make sure the animals inside are quickly ‘depopulated.’ They'd then be buried.”
The state has been working with farmers to locate areas of farms where mass burials of culled animals could take place. It's important this is done early because “we want to get all the water-quality and environmental issues out of the way prior to any problems.”
Byrd says pains have been taken to make sure the disaster plans are as easy to pull off as possible.
“If you don't take it down to the farm level, it's pointless. The farm is what's really important here. We can make plans from office buildings all day long. But if they don't address what is actually happening on the farm — the logistics, the manpower, the government regulations and laws — it's wasted time. This is like a fire drill. You may never have to employ that drill, but it's better to have done one than worry about what to do while your building is blazing away.”
At the very least Byrd wants a farmer to have a thumbnail sketch of what he'll do when a disease hits. Where will the animals be buried? How will disinfecting of an operation be done?
There are other issues to consider, too. Farms may be in the quarantine zone, but their animals may not be infected and need not be culled. With strict travel restrictions in and out of the zone, how will feed get to those farms?
First concern: you want to make sure when feed trucks move about inside a quarantine zone they aren't spreading disease — not only outside the zone, but within it.
“That means we'd want as few feed truck deliveries as possible — just enough to tide farms over. When trucks come into zones, they'd have to stay there. So we'd probably have feed transfer at the edge of zones.”
Several companies are looking at the possibility of feed bins being placed at the edge of zones. That would allow them to bring trucks to the bin, augur feed into it and then leave. A truck within the quarantine zone would then augur out the feed and carry it to quarantined farms.
Is Byrd in contact with his counterparts in surrounding states?
“We've been working very closely with all states contiguous to Arkansas. States like Oklahoma and Missouri — where we have shared poultry and pork industry interests — are key.”
The livestock industry spills over borders, it doesn't conform itself to state lines. A company's headquarters may be in Arkansas, but its hatchery or production site may be in a neighboring state.
If an outbreak of foot-and-mouth occurs, it will be very painful, says Byrd. A recent American Farm Bureau Federation report said that if foot-and-mouth ever hit Arkansas, the damage could top $1 billion. Other studies and simulations back this up.
“Texas found that one small county alone would face millions of dollars in losses. Multiply that times all the counties in that huge state and you're talking an absolute gutting of the industry.”
On this issue, there are few lone ranger states, says Byrd. It would be foolish to not work with neighbors.
“I think most of the states in our region share plans and how they'd impact each other. It's critical that we have compatible plans. That's because an outbreak isn't likely to happen in downtown Little Rock. It's likely to happen away from cities — potentially near state lines.”
Not only must these plans be compatible, but those formulating them are now forced to “think outside the box,” says Byrd.
Why? Because traditionally, the federal government would play the cavalry in disease outbreak situations. But there are now fewer total people in the federal veterinary services than there were detailed in the Pennsylvania avian influenza outbreak a few years ago, says Byrd.
“That means if there is an outbreak of foot-and-mouth, there will be few federal employees to help. In that eventuality, there would likely be a minimum of 10 to 20 states involved and the federal veterinarians would be spread so thin they wouldn't be able to do as much as we'd hope. That means the states have to pull more weight. The federal veterinarians are part of the partnership, but they aren't the force they once were.”
States, the federal veterinarians and industry must band together on contingency plans, insists Byrd.
“We must form a relationship, put plans in place and use the power of industry to make these things doable. These diseases are explosive and we aren't in great practice of facing them. 1929 was the last time foot-and-mouth was in this country.”
From some quarters, there is concern with terrorists seeing international expos or fairs as potential targets. Byrd says that concern is justified.
“Our industry has never experienced a horrific terrorist event. But we'd be foolish not to consider it. That's because the industry isn't built around disease control but around feed efficiency, supply and demand and processing.
“We're in a new time. For whatever reason, we're more vulnerable food-wise than we've ever been before. Issues like terrorism drive that home.”
Today, America has few people on the farm and huge populations in urban settings.
“This is unlike when, say during the Great Depression, the vast majority of citizens were on farms. In that setting, everyone was in dire straits, but many — because they lived on farms — were at least able to scrape together something to eat.”
Because of the demographic flip-flop, anything attacking the U.S. food supply would be much more devastating to the country than in the past, says Byrd.
Further, the concentration of pork and poultry industries is another concern. Arkansas has about 1.8 million head of cattle on 31,400 farms.
It also has 685,000 hogs on 1,350 sites. However, more than two-thirds of those hogs are on just 145 farms. The average state poultry operation has 20,000 chickens held in conditions allowing for 1.25 chickens per square foot.
“Anytime you concentrate animals, whether on large farms or at some expo or fair, there's a much greater risk for disease spreading rapidly. That plays right into the hands of any potential terrorists.”
For a terrorist, one of the draws of a bio-terrorism act is he could flee the scene days before symptoms show up. It wouldn't be like a bombing where everyone is on alert for a nefarious fellow as soon as the explosion occurs, says Byrd.
“All it takes is one crazy person. But whether it's from terrorism or a natural occurrence, the response to a disease outbreak will be the same. That's why there's a small degree of comfort in at least having the plans in place.”