GAO tells USDA to design strategy for new animal disease surveillance

By Agri-Pulse staff

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, May 22, 2013- The U.S. Department of Agriculture's new methods for surveying animal health need to be fine-tuned to include more informative action plans, according to new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released Tuesday.

The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) began shifting its disease-by-disease surveillance approach in 2012 to one that monitors the overall health of livestock and poultry. The new approach is designed to improve its ability to analyze health information about production animals.

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“USDA is updating its animal disease surveillance efforts to create a national picture of health of the country's livestock and poultry,” said director in GAO's natural resources and environment team, Daniel Garcia-Diaz. “In the past it only monitored specific diseases.”

In addition to its role as the leading agency for detecting, controlling and eradicating animal disease, USDA must work with the Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for coordinating all bio-surveillance efforts.

However, USDA “may not be ideally positioned to support national efforts to address the next threat to animal and human health” if it does not provide an overall strategy with goals and measures aligned with broader national homeland security efforts to detect biological threats, according to the report.

Garcia-Diaz's team visited several swine facilities to monitor USDA's new surveillance efforts. “We found that USDA didn't have a road map on how its new approach would work, and it did not include any specific information on what it expects to achieve through these efforts,” he said.

He added that USDA did not always grade its own performance, “so there was no way to determine whether individual initiatives were effective or not.” Additionally, APHIS planning documents did not include information on how its efforts would contribute to the national goal of bio-surveillance.

GAO identified key challenges to carrying out this new approach, including how to obtain data from producers, who are concerned that health information about their herds and flocks be kept confidential. Further, resource constraints also present a challenge, according to agency and state officials, given the recent decrease in APHIS's budget of about 14 percent for fiscal years 2008 through 2013.

The report acknowledged that APHIS developed planning documents related to the agency's capabilities in disease surveillance in livestock and poultry, but the goals identified in the documents focus primarily on processes or activities “and do not specifically address outcomes the agency seeks to accomplish or have associated performance measures.”

GAO recommended that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack direct APHIS to integrate the agency's vision into an overall strategy, with associated goals and measures, that guides how APHIS's new approach will support national homeland security efforts to enhance the detection of biological threats.

“USDA has embarked on ambitious and complex effort,” Garcia-Diaz said, while concluding the department needs to bring its separate initiatives together under one comprehensive strategy. “By doing so it will be better positioned to address threats to human and animal health.”

In response to the GAO, USDA Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Progrmas Edward Avalos, wrote that the department agrees with the recommendations. “APHIS will include better performance metrics in its planning efforts,” he said. APHIS plans to develop performance measure for its Comprehensive and Integrate Swine Surveillance within the next year. 

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