GAO faults USDA's initial response to deadly pig disease outbreak

By Daniel Enoch

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WASHINGTON, Jan. 14, 2016 - The Government Accountability Office has issued a report that criticizes USDA's response to the initial outbreaks of deadly Swine Enteric Coronavirus Diseases (SECD) in the spring of 2013, outbreaks that eventually killed millions of pigs.

The report says the department failed to take regulatory action when the outbreak was first detected, because it believed such action wasn't necessary. Instead, USDA initially supported swine industry-led efforts against SECD, which includes the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus, or PEDv.

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“Without regulatory action, such as requiring reporting of infected herds, USDA had limited information about the location of the first infected herds,” GAO said. “In addition, USDA officials acknowledged that USDA did not follow its guidance that calls for conducting epidemiological investigations at the onset of outbreaks. As a result, USDA did not conduct timely investigations of the premises with the first infected herds, and the source of disease will likely never be determined.” USDA did not require reporting of new outbreaks until June 2014.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, the Michigan Republican who requested the report, said it was “troubling” that USDA did not follow its own guidance on investigations at the start of the outbreak, and that department officials knew they were not following procedure.

“Pig disease outbreaks, and any livestock-related outbreak for that matter, are of great concern in southwest Michigan and around the country,” Upton said in a release. “From the integrity of our food supply to biosecurity, USDA's actions created unnecessary risks. Where will USDA go from here? That's the million-dollar question that must be answered before the next outbreak.”

GAO noted that USDA has drafted new guidance to help improve future responses to SECD and other emerging animal diseases. However, it said the department has not defined key aspects of its response, such as roles and responsibilities, which according to its strategic plan, are key components of successful collaboration to protect animal health.

“Without a clearly defined response to such emerging animal diseases, response efforts could be slowed,” GAO said.

The report recommend that USDA develop a process to help ensure its guidance for investigation of animal diseases is followed and clarify and document how it will respond to emerging diseases, including defining roles and responsibilities. It noted that USDA generally agreed with those recommendations.

When asked to comment on the report, a spokesperson for USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said the agency is continually looking for ways to improve its processes so they better serve farmers and ranchers and protect animals and plants.

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We had not faced anything like this before, and learned a great deal from it about our response strategy, and are now using that knowledge to work with our partners and stakeholders to implement our emerging diseases framework objectives in a transparent way,” the spokesperson said in an e-mail.

In its report, GAO noted that the U.S. is the world's third-largest producer of pork products, with estimated exports of those products in 2014 valued at over $6 billion.

 

(This story was updated with APHIS comment at 6:10 p.m.)

 

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