A recently developed diagnostic laboratory network will produce faster, better-coordinated investigations when authorities suspect contamination of animal feed or drugs, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
Dr. Renate Reimschuessel, director of the Veterinary Laboratory Response Network, or Vet-LRN, said that, while the FDA has other programs that investigate the quality of animal food or drugs, the new network will improve the speed of investigations and let the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine delegate tasks when animal diagnostic testing is needed. The network so far includes 24 veterinary diagnostic laboratories in the U.S. that will help investigate reports by veterinarians and the public.
"We can monitor what's happening around the country and, hopefully, discover and diagnose problems very, very early on."
She said the network could be called on for help, for example, if CVM officials suspected a batch of contaminated grain was connected with deaths of horses but too little grain remained for testing.
"If we find that there is a case where diagnostic specimens from the animal could help us decide if there was a problem with one of the regulated products, then we can ask our veterinary diagnostic partners to do the necropsy and to do the testing on those tissues that they obtain," Dr. Reimschuessel said.
The network could also help the CVM coordinate diagnostic tests that would confirm agency findings even if the feed were available for tests, she said.
Dr. Stephen B. Hooser, director of the Indiana Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory at Purdue University, which is participating in the Vet-LRN, expects benefits from achieving comparable test results among network laboratories after common methods and proficiency tests have been adopted, and from increased communication among participants.
"We can monitor what's happening around the country and, hopefully, discover and diagnose problems very, very early on," Dr. Hooser said.
Dr. Reimschuessel said the CVM saw the need for the network during the 2007 recalls and pet deaths involving melamine, a nitrogen-containing compound that had been added to wheat gluten to alter results of tests that measure protein content on the basis of nitrogen content. At the time, the investigational needs were discussed among representatives of the CVM and some veterinary diagnostic laboratories, but the agency had no way to assign needed tasks or share confidential information.
"Obviously a lot of veterinary laboratories donated time and effort, but what we need to have in place is a system that can respond to something rapidly," Dr. Reimschuessel said.
Dr. Bruce L. Akey, executive director of the Animal Health Diagnostic Center at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, similarly said the melamine contamination response showed that the agency could benefit from a better-coordinated group of veterinary diagnostic laboratories. Many of the laboratories already handled many feed contamination cases, he said, but they used varied protocols for tests used to detect substances such as melamine.
"Obviously a lot of veterinary laboratories donated time and effort, but what we need to have in place is a system that can respond to something rapidly."
Dr. Akey said that, before the network was established, he and others at the Cornell laboratory learned through news media about some of the feed contamination problems elsewhere in the U.S. But the network provides faster disclosure from fellow laboratories and regulators and gives advanced warning about contamination sources or problems that could affect animals across the country.
If the Vet-LRN had been in place during the melamine investigation, Dr. Akey thinks information on tests and the contamination's effects would have been shared more broadly and quickly as well as in a more standardized format.
Dr. Akey expects the network will benefit not only animal health but also human health through better investigations into livestock feed.
The Vet-LRN was modeled after the Food Emergency Response Network, a combined federal project led by the FDA and Department of Agriculture, Dr. Reimschuessel said. That project coordinates emergency responses among laboratories that test for contamination in food produced for human consumption.
Laboratories participating in FERN were involved in the federal response to the melamine-related deaths among dogs and cats in 2007, analyzing more than 200 samples in a protein surveillance assignment. They have also been called on in response to events ranging from a 2006 outbreak of Escherichia coli infection connected with spinach to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill's potential contamination of seafood with polyaromatic hydrocarbons.
Animal food or drug contamination reporting information is available at www.fda.gov/animalveterinary/safetyhealth/. Vet-LRN information is available at www.fda.gov/animalveterinary/scienceresearch/.