If the unthinkable happens, it’s time to think.
Clear-headed, calm thought, in fact, is the only way to keep a potentially bad situation from getting worse. And if the crisis plows new ground, there could be a mix of panic, misinformation that further upsets consumers, and demands for urgency that can lead to poor decisions.
In its effort to make clear-headed decisions, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) and the animal industry recently held a three-day, multi-state exercise that trained farmers, state officials, slaughterhouses, packers, auction barns, truckers, USDA officials, state police and other groups about how to react if foot-and-mouth disease shows up in the United States.
“We played a non-infected state,” said Brad Deacon, emergency management coordinator with MDARD. “The scenario was that on Monday night, we had a national call from USDA, briefing us just like it would in a real incident, about a case of foot-and-mouth in a Western state. State Veterinarian James Averill made calls to me as emergency manager, and to 30 or 40 others, so we could hit the ground running Tuesday morning to build a response, consider financing, logistics, planning and public information.”
Fortunately, Deacon said, Michigan is ahead of the game because of its experience tracing animals when bovine tuberculosis has been found.
“Our familiarity with movement is pretty good,” he said. “We got some simulated health certificates during the exercise and simulated that we found a farm of concern which received animals from that (Western) state. We put 25 field staffers from all state programs on that farm (theoretically). We put all hands on deck, which is what we’ll need in a crisis that could be this big and serious.”
Obviously, said Ernie Birchmeier, livestock and dairy specialist with Michigan Farm Bureau, the first priority is controlling the disease.
“Biosecurity is something we’ve talked about for a long time, but we’re not really sure if that’s an iron-clad defense on all farms right now,” he said. “We learned during this exercise that we need to be even more diligent to protect what we have, and the only way to do that is to have protective measures in place and a plan to make sure they work.”
If a foot-and-mouth crisis were to pop up, Birchmeier said, Michigan is prepared.
“We have basic plans in place, and we examined a lot of ‘what-ifs’ too. What if a reporter gets excited and tries moving from farm-to-farm? Do we stop shipping milk because the hauler goes from farm-to-farm? Does the AI technician keep moving around? These are all things we need to consider and have a plan to contain the disease and prevent panic.”
What made the exercise better than past mock-emergencies was the number of stakeholders involved, said George Quackenbush, executive director of the Michigan Beef Industry Commission.
“In the past, we haven’t had all the different segments of the industry involved,” he said. “Because they were all there, we could simulate what it means if we have a stop-movement order; what complications could arise and what it means for markets, farmers and the industry as a whole.”
Deacon said he was happy so many stakeholders were involved.
“In a situation like this, it’s key to talk with the animal industry, which was part of our table-talk discussion,” he said. “We were able to give background on our emergency response and talk through the potential scenarios. This is an industry continuum, so we were able to talk through who does what, and what biosecurity really means.”
Every time an exercise like this takes place, Deacon said, something new is learned.
“I feel better prepared today,” he said. “We talked a lot about the need for communication, disease control strategy and making sure we have solid information. We not only have to deal with the disease and movement issues, but making sure a reporter doesn’t think he should visit farms in the middle of an outbreak. We need to monitor social media and have rumor control.
“This was an opportunity to have our livestock sectors hear directly from their counterparts who have worked through similar situations such as the poultry industry with avian influenza,” Deacon said. “Having the animal industry involved helped us come up with an action plan for necessary steps, report back to the industry, prioritize what happens first, and plan what the state can do and cannot do, such as on-farm biosecurity.”
Hopefully, the situation examined during the exercise won’t ever come up. But being prepared is the only option, and farmers need to have a plan, Birchmeier said.
“We all have to look around our farms and ask ourselves if we’ve done all we can before something happens,” he said. “We have to be prepared, and that means thinking ahead. It’s never an emergency until it’s an emergency, and then it’s too late. It’s best to be aware and be prepared.”