COVID-19 impacts on food production medicine

There have been no reports of poultry or livestock becoming ill with COVID-19 in the United States. Still, COVID-19 is causing disruptions in the food supply chain that are impacting, and will continue to impact, livestock and poultry veterinarians. Among these disruptions are shortages of personnel and, occasionally, supplies. Across all aspects of our food production systems changes are being implemented to address these disruptions. It is imperative that any changes to operations that impact the health and welfare of animals be made in consultation with a food animal veterinarian.

On farm
Due to the current pandemic, personnel shortages are being experienced at various levels throughout the food supply chain. Producers are having trouble finding personnel to help care for animals and processors are struggling to find personnel to process the animals at slaughter and deliver the products to retailers. Personnel shortages that slow the operation of slaughter facilities mean that animals may need to be kept for a longer time on the farm. Whether this is feasible will depend on the capacity of the farm to handle more and larger animals (i.e., whether sufficient space is available to house, feed, and water those animals). Farmers may, in some circumstances, have the option of adjusting their animals’ diets in ways that will slow their growth, thus allowing slaughter facilities to process animals that are destined for slaughter over an extended period of time. Farmers should, of course, consult with their veterinarian when making adjustments to their animals’ diets to ensure that good health and welfare are maintained. 

As state and local municipalities have enacted social distancing measures and shelter-in-place orders, US food consumption patterns have changed drastically. Prior to the pandemic, a large percentage of US animal agriculture products went to the restaurant industry. With the implementation of the shelter-in-place orders, much of the demand generated by the restaurant industry has disappeared while demand at grocery stores has increased. Unfortunately, some processing plants lack the equipment to package food appropriately for grocery store sales. For example, at many dairy processors, the machinery is designed to package shredded cheeses in large bags for restaurants or milk is packaged in small cartons for schools. To repurpose plants to put cheese into 8 ounce bags that sell in grocery stores or bottle milk in gallon jugs would require considerable investment and time to install needed equipment. As a result, cheese plants are either asking or telling their milk suppliers that they need to decrease production or dispose of a percentage of their milk. There are reports of some dairy farmers feeding milk back to cows as a protein and fat supplement, or in some cases deciding there is no option but to dispose of excess milk. We understand that dairy farmers have identified two primary ways they might reduce milk production; unfortunately, neither approach is proving to be practical. One of those options is to stop milking cows early (referred to as “dry off”). Unfortunately, doing so has potential negative health consequences for a cow that normally produces large amounts of milk—it can precipitate mastitis. The second option is to sell some of their dairy cows for slaughter. Unfortunately, as mentioned above and further described below, we know from industry sources that slaughter plants are also operating at reduced capacity so it is difficult for them to accept additional animals for slaughter.

A Farm Crisis Operations Planning Tool is available from the American Association of Swine Veterinarians.

Slaughter
Currently, the United States is experiencing multiple slaughter plant closures due to personnel being exposed to or ill from COVID-19 and unable to work.  

In the best-case scenario, animals would be moved to another slaughter plant for processing; however, this option is not always available. Reasons it may not be include, but are not limited to, lack of suitable transportation; the inability of the alternate plant to handle that species or size of animal (e.g., incompatible equipment); insufficient capacity to accommodate additional animals; or personnel shortages similarly affecting the alternate facility.

On April 28, the President signed an Executive Order to keep meat and poultry processing facilities open to maintain the continuity of our food supply, while ensuring that processing plants adhere to current CDC and OSHA guidance to protect the health and safety of processing plant employees. The USDA is leading the federal response by working in coordination with the Vice President’s Task Force, the CDC, OSHA, Department of Labor, industry, state and local governments, and others to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on producers. The USDA-APHIS has established a National Incident Coordination Center to provide direct support to producers whose animals cannot move to market as a result of processing plant closures due to COVID-19. They have resources for identifying alternative markets or, if needed, to advise and assist on depopulation and disposal methods. Additionally, USDA-APHIS will mobilize and deploy assets of the National Veterinary Stockpile as needed and secure the services of contractors who can supply additional equipment, personnel, and services.

Euthanasia and depopulation
If options cannot be identified for accommodating extra and/or larger animals within the production system, then it may be necessary to euthanize or depopulate some animals. All feasible alternatives should be explored and implemented prior to making such a decision. Past crises have taught us that doing nothing can result in greater animal suffering and endanger animal caretakers and response personnel. Advance planning is essential to ensure that the best possible animal welfare-focused decisions, with the least amount of animal suffering, are made during emergency situations and extreme crisis.

Advanced planning for emergency situations like the current COVID-19 crisis, and support for implementation of the plan once a decision to depopulate has been made, are both critical for protecting animal welfare and human health and safety. As described in the AVMA Guidelines for the Depopulation of Animals, “preferred methods” should be utilized first. Methods that are “permitted in constrained circumstances” should be used only when the circumstances of the emergency are deemed to constrain the ability to reasonably implement a preferred method.  Methods that are “not recommended” should be considered ONLY when circumstances preclude the reasonable implementation of any of the “preferred” or “permitted in constrained circumstances” methods, and when the risk of doing nothing is likely to result in significantly more animal suffering than that associated with the proposed depopulation technique. In circumstances not clearly covered by the AVMA Guidelines for the Depopulation of Animals, a veterinarian experienced with the species in question should apply professional judgment and knowledge of clinically acceptable techniques in selecting a method of euthanasia or depopulation (if required). 

Recommendations for the Depopulation of Swine and Recommendations for the Depopulation of Poultry Flocks are available from the American Association of Swine Veterinarians and the American Association of Avian Pathologists, respectively. Advice on depopulation and disposal is also available from the USDA-APHIS Livestock Coordination Center.

Evaluating emergency euthanasia or depopulation of livestock and poultry
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