Focused efforts for growing duties

USDA increasing veterinary agency role while budget may decline
Published on March 01, 2011
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Eradication campaigns that have reduced animal illnesses in previous decades are being adapted to eliminate smaller disease reservoirs.  

Veterinarians who work outside federal agencies will be required to participate in training and regularly file renewals to maintain their ability to perform federal work. At the same time, the Department of Agriculture is preparing to increase its veterinary duties while budget allocations remain level or fall.

The Veterinary Services program of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has started a series of changes intended to update the program for present needs and future budget expectations, its documents state. The program is undergoing the changes as part of VS 2015, a strategic program first announced in 2008.

Some of the adapted efforts by USDA APHIS Veterinary Services are intended to provide more focused and flexible regulations for diseases such as brucellosis, which in recent years has affected bison, elk, and cattle in the area near Yellowstone National Park but few other areas of the U.S.

Dr. John Clifford, deputy administrator for Veterinary Services at APHIS, said the USDA is adapting his agency to increase governmental flexibility in writing regulations, increase the use of science and risk to determine actions, and increase the flow of information that veterinarians and their clients could use to maintain market access and the ability to ship their animals. Veterinary Services is expected to take expanded roles in preharvest food safety and efforts to combat antimicrobial resistance, the latter of which he expects would come through information rather than regulations. The changes will work with existing programs, such as the National Animal Health Monitoring System.

"Our focus is going to be looking at animal health as a whole, doing active surveillance as well as passive surveillance, collecting information both from the private practitioner and producers through the NAHMS surveys and other surveys, as well as testing samples that are part of our comprehensive surveillance system," Dr. Clifford said.

Dr. Larry M. Granger, director of the USDA Centers for Epidemiology and Animal Health within Veterinary Services, said the VS 2015 program, like the AVMA One Health Initiative, will increase attention to the interaction between human and animal health. For example, working groups within CEAH have discussed how they can provide useful information to partners in public health, academia, and fellow government agencies, he said.

"We see ourselves as very important on the animal husbandry, animal production side and representing that in the broader one-health picture," Dr. Granger said.  

Adapting mitigation techniques

The USDA's new approach to containing and eradicating brucellosis shows how rare-disease responses are changing, Dr. Clifford said. While he thinks past methods have been effective at combating widespread animal diseases, the statewide testing and movement restrictions used in the past penalize all producers in that state, regardless of their risk for increasingly rare diseases.  

"We think the approach should be based on risk mitigation and not one that would unnecessarily burden the industry or the states," Dr. Clifford said.

Under an interim rule the USDA published Dec. 27, 2010, states can more easily maintain the lowest level of brucellosis-related restrictions and testing requirements. The change eliminates automatic reclassification for entire states and areas resulting from discovery of two herds with brucellosis within two years. It also drops a requirement that states depopulate herds with infections within 60 days to maintain the entire state's brucellosis-free status.

In late January, the Texas Animal Health Commission reported brucellosis infections in a small beef cattle herd, the first such infections in the state in more than five years. A single animal in a Louisiana research herd was found to be infected in 2008, and six of the seven other brucellosis infections discovered in 2008-2010 were in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, which have brucellosis-infected wild elk and bison in the area around Yellowstone National Park.

Dr. Bruce W. Hoffman, chair of the Montana VMA's Food Animal/Regulatory Committee and president of Animal Profiling International, says USDA's proposed changes to the brucellosis program makes sense, particularly those that would eliminate whole-herd testing requirements and statewide movement restrictions when infections are found in one area of the state. He noted that ranchers in Montana could drive more than five hours between their ranches and the counties near Yellowstone National Park.

Dr. Randy Ward, president of the Montana VMA, said the USDA's proposed changes to the brucellosis program could improve responses to infections by allowing ranchers and veterinarians flexibility without mandating automatic herd depopulation or other burdensome actions. If the changes to the brucellosis eradication plan work well, he thinks that scientific assessments of response protocols and improved understanding of diseases could similarly improve responses to outbreaks involving other diseases.

As Veterinary Services adapts, Dr. Granger sees potential for the program to strengthen its relationship with producers and promote an understanding that program authorities want to help them. He said government and industry have a shared interest in eradicating and controlling disease and in maintaining market access. Like Dr. Clifford, he said focusing efforts on areas within states will help focus resources and avoid penalizing producers not at risk.  

Focusing mitigation work for uncertain budgets

While Veterinary Services plans to give food producers more information to help them address foodborne illness risks, the service will also monitor for emerging disease. Previous USDA publications indicate Veterinary Services is trying to expand its mission despite flat or declining budgets, and Dr. Clifford said his agency will try to focus resources toward the highest-priority animal and human health risks, with animal health risks being the agency's focus.  

Our focus is going to be looking at animal health as a whole, doing active surveillance as well as passive surveillance, collecting information both from the private practitioner and producers through the NAHMS surveys and other surveys, as well as testing samples that are part of our comprehensive surveillance system." 

Veterinarians could see the effects of the program through both their clients' and their own interactions with the agency.

"The new direction we've taken in veterinary accreditation today obviously directly affects them, and I think it will prepare us for our vision for 2015 as well, and help them know what our priorities are going to be and the things of the future that will most impact them," Dr. Clifford said. "I think, from a profession standpoint, and maybe from a government profession standpoint, it provides much greater opportunities for veterinarians to be involved in a lot more issues."

The USDA is implementing a revised National Veterinary Accreditation Program, which authorizes participating veterinarians to perform some duties for the department. The department ended in 2010 its lifetime accreditation system in favor of a system that requires continuing education and renewals in tiered accreditation categories.

USDA APHIS announced Sept. 28 that the agency was extending the deadline for participation in the revised NVAP until further notice. The agency had previously warned that veterinarians who did apply to participate in the revised program would lose their accreditation Aug. 2, but the agency extended the deadline because of the number of applications received and the time needed to process each application. Supplemental training for the program was expected to become available sometime after March 2011.  

Possible future projects

Dr. Granger sees more opportunities for veterinarians to participate in disease control or eradication programs, and he thinks the USDA could eventually develop a surveillance system that would allow veterinarians to help track reportable diseases without putting them at risk of losing clients or their employment. He thinks the USDA should review and possibly expand the methods of involving independent veterinarians and diagnostic laboratories in conducting disease investigations, collecting and testing diagnostic samples, and providing information to other veterinarians and producers for combating disease.  

"We have diseases that circulate in animal populations that may be important, may be emerging, may be new, and we haven't a good way to detect them unless they're high-morbidity, high-mortality events," he said.

However, Dr. Granger noted that expanding cooperation between private veterinarians and a regulatory authority could be met with suspicion or resistance, and the USDA would need to ensure that producers and veterinarians would both benefit from that cooperation.

"Producers have to be able to move animals to market and to be able to deal with the human health risk and the animal health problem appropriately," Dr. Granger said. "We have to find ways that we can mitigate the risks and allow producers to have market access."