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​​​​​​Illustration by Michael Austin​

Barnyard Biosecurity

​Securing the U.S. food supply demands proactivity. In contrast, recalls of contaminated food, such as the nationwide romaine lettuce recall in 2018, are reactive. By the time of the recall, contamination had already occurred and efforts turned to damage control.

So, in the name of proactivity, both the U.S. government and the United Nations are calling on farmers to be a greater part of the frontline of food security. 

In the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) launched a Defend the Flock biosafety campaign, aimed at preventing the spread of infectious poultry diseases. 

Biosecurity, in general, refers to efforts to keep diseases (and the pathogens that cause them) from infecting animals and humans. The pathogens that can cause diseases include parasites, viruses, fungi, and bacteria. 

“We’ve seen great strides in bio­security since 2015, but biosecurity is an every day, every time effort,” said Jack Shere, USDA’s chief veterinary officer, in a public statement when the campaign was announced several months ago.    

The biosecurity campaign was launched for a few reasons. One is that the United States experienced several poultry-related health safety issues in the last decade, such as the devastating epidemic of the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus in 2014–2015. 

“This outbreak was the largest highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) outbreak ever recorded in the United States and arguably the most significant animal health event in U.S. history,” USDA said in its final report on the 2014–2015 incident. 

Approximately 43 million chickens and 7.4 million turkeys died from the disease during that time frame, according to government statistics. 

Last year, a much smaller outbreak of the virulent Newcastle disease in southern California resulted in the euthanasia of more than 50,000 chickens. That outbreak featured the first Newcastle infection of a commercial chicken flock since 2003. 

Another reason for the biosecurity campaign is that U.S. poultry is one of the country’s largest industries, and a contamination incident can have serious spillover ramifications. “Disease outbreaks lead to devastation of our flocks and result in job and financial losses, quarantines limiting trade, and affecting prices on eggs, prepared poultry, and other staples,” the agency said in the campaign’s mission statement.

The campaign offers farmers a range of biosecurity resources they can use, including best practice guides, videos, checklists, fact sheets, and webinars, as well as information on related wildlife management practices and a media toolkit for becoming a “Flock Defender.” 

“To sustain good practices takes awareness, training, and reminders,” Shere said. 

Judy Fadden, a food safety consultant who heads Fadden Analytical Security and is a member of the ASIS International Food Defense and Agriculture Security Council, says she believes that the USDA campaign is “a great idea” and that the best practices it promotes are sound and logical. 

However, she notes that maintaining tight biosecurity practices is no easy task. “There are a number of things that make it complicated,” she says.

She offers the example of farmers who attempt to maintain controlled barns that are contamination-free. Someone like a cleaner or sanitation worker may be going from barn to barn and can inadvertently transfer pathogens to several facilities. Similarly, delivery vehicles can unwittingly transfer pathogens, too. 

“It doesn’t take much to contaminate,” explains Fadden, whose parents were chicken farmers. 

She also agrees with the USDA that the spillover effects of contamination can be economically devastating. Many of the producers affected in the 2014–2015 outbreak did not have insurance when their flocks were decimated, she says. 

Consumer confidence in chicken “was terrible,” which she says hurt the industry, as did the effect on “down­stream” products such as cake and other baking mixes, which often contain dried egg. Bird flu can also kill people, although cases of infected humans are uncommon.   

The current USDA biosecurity campaign combines and updates two prev­ious campaigns, each of which was targeted at a specific segment of the poultry population. 

“While each of the previous campaigns was successful, by combining them and emphasizing shared responsibility, USDA will improve its ability to promote biosecurity and protect avian health across the country,” Shere said.

Like the U.S. government, the United Nations is also calling on farmers to step up their practices in the name of safety and security. According to the Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, farmers have a vital role to play in stemming the spread of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) among disease-causing pathogens. 

Experts say improper use of antibiotics and other antimicrobial agents partly increased the number of drug-resistant disease-causing microbes in both agriculture and medicine. These microbes, which have developed AMR, prove resistant to antibiotic-related infection cures.

The ramifications of this development are serious. According to the FAO, one person around the globe dies every minute from a drug-resistant infection. 

Without action, the death rate will rise. By 2050, AMR will cost the world economy an estimated $6 trillion annually. AMR also has serious implications for food safety and security, the FAO said.

“Antimicrobial resistance is a concern for all of us,” FAO Assistant Director-General Bukar Tijani said late last year when his agency announced the AMR campaign. “There are over 7 billion consumers in the world, and food safety and quality are paramount.”

Antimicrobials are widely used for farm animals and are sometimes dusted on crops to combat infections. These medicines are also added to feed, even when animals are healthy, to prevent infections. Given this, FAO is calling on farmers to replace the practice with better measures to prevent infections and extend the lifespan of antimicrobials, the amount of which are limited. 

These measures include guidance on practicing good farm hygiene, getting veterinary advice before using antimicrobials, and sharing information with neighbors to promote best practices.

“When we use antimicrobials excessively on farms, we're contributing to the spread of AMR, as resistant pathogens move into the environment through animal waste and farm runoff,” FAO Chief Veterinary Officer Juan Lubroth said in a statement. 

Fadden says the campaign to fight the spread of AMR is a “fantastic” development. Although adopting FAO’s recommended practices of stronger infection prevention may cost farmers money in the short term, she says it will help give them “the ability to be more sustainable,” which will likely pay off financially for them in the long run. 

In addition, FAO is working to help governments, agricultural authorities, and livestock producers build their capacity to address AMR, with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development and various countries—including Russia, China, France, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden.

Lubroth called farmers “one of the important frontline defenders” in the battle to contain the growing threat of AMR. 

“If we are to feed a growing population and keep antimicrobials working, we need to invest in our farmers and food production systems,” he said.