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This year has been stressful for everyone, but COVID-19 has caused excruciating issues for the pork industry. From market disruptions due to plant closures and decimation of the food-service sector, to pork producers having to make incredibly difficult decisions because of over-capacity, it’s been a year for the ages.

“Meat sales rocketed in the spring with panic-buying,” said Bill Even, CEO of the National Pork Board, during a keynote address at the recent 2020 U.S. Animal Health Association virtual annual meeting. “But as the restaurant industry was shutting down, the supply chain became out of balance. We ended up with a lot of product destined for food service that wasn’t packaged for sale at retail grocery.”

The Checkoff, along with the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), quickly went to work to address industry concerns associated with COVID-19.

Common sense, collaborative response

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) established the National Incident Coordination Center in May. The Center provides “direct support to producers whose animals cannot move to market as a result of processing plant closures due to COVID-19,” according to a USDA news release. “Going forward, APHIS’ Coordination Center, State Veterinarians, and other state officials will be assisting to help identify potential alternative markets if a producer is unable to move animals, and if necessary, advise and assist on depopulation and disposal methods.”

Additionally, APHIS said it would “mobilize and deploy assets of the National Veterinary Stockpile as needed and secure the services of contractors that can supply additional equipment, personnel, and services, much as it did during the large-scale Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza emergency in 2015.”

The USDA’s Natural Resources and Conservation Service (NRCS) also “provided state-level technical assistance to producers and cost-share assistance under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), in line with program guidelines for disposal,” the release said.

“The Pork Checkoff was committed to doing everything possible to also assist in the response,” Even said, including:

 Resources for producers and states

 Representation of the industry to consumers

 Collaboration across the supply chain to address unprecedented market disruptions

“Our three main goals during the crisis were to: 1. Help processing plants continue to operate; 2. Help producers and states with emergency depopulation and disposal and; 3. Help protect pork’s image from farm to fork,” Even said.

Eye of the hurricane

The pork industry was in the eye of the hurricane, Even said, so action to help producers was swift and decisive. The Checkoff worked with state pork producer associations to keep members comprised of the situation by producing factual resources including 13 weekly webinars, a weekly e-newsletter, an online packing capacity map, and emergency depopulation and disposal field research, including 7 research projects totaling $240,000. In addition, the Checkoff provided state pork association support with reallocation of $3 million in Checkoff funds.

The Checkoff also worked closely with the North American Meat Institute to provide support for the packing industry, Even said. “We provided resources for [essential food worker] employees through public health expertise and created digital ads thanking food workers who were deployed during the pandemic,” Even said. “We invested $500,000 and had more than 20 million views in U.S. communities that had packing plants.”

“We turned on a dime and completely revamped our domestic marketing strategy, too,” he added. “Real-time research helped us re-direct our marketing programs by understanding consumer behavior, sentiment, and buying habits.”

Lessons learned

In June, Even and the Checkoff staff did an after-action review. “We realized we really weren’t prepared for large-scale emergency depopulation and disposal,” he said. More resources would be needed to respond efficiently and effectively if another crisis – like a foreign animal disease – were to enter the country.

“We learned farmer-led solutions worked best, and that more research is needed on viable emergency depopulation and disposal methods,” Even said. Knowledge gained from the COVID-19 pandemic will help the pork industry better prepare for an FAD, Even said. Important components include:

 Effective response plans with identified and available resources

 Validation of diagnostic tests and sampling methods finalized prior to an outbreak

 Effective vaccines on-the-ready and stockpiled

 Contact tracing to reduce the spread of disease

The feral swine issue must be addressed, too, Even said. It’s estimated there are more than 6 million feral swine in the U.S. “We saw what happened in Germany, where their pork industry lost more than one billion dollars in a 24-hour period when feral pigs tested positive for ASF,” he pointed out. “We have a little bit of a breather right now with international travel dropping off so significantly [in terms of an FAD being brought in through an illegal food product].

Regionalization benefits

An FAD would cause immediate closure of export markets, to the tune of an estimated $15 billion in losses to the pork industry over a 2-year period, according to Iowa State University economist Dermott Hayes. That number would rise to $50 billion in losses over 10 years. “The USDA is working on regionalization with our trade partners,” Even said. “Animal movement tracing is an important factor in regionalization with trade partners,” Even said. “USDA is working with major pork export markets to make sure a US regionalization plan would be recognized by key partners.”

Even said a web-based technology solution called AgView would provide a rapid, informed response – vital for containing an FAD outbreak. “It adds a new level of practical benefits to the Secure Pork Supply, and the software will provide near- real-time disease status to facilitate disease trace-back,” Even said. “With producer permission, AgView can quickly share with animal health officials the type and size of farms, animal movements, positive tracing and lab results. It integrates with database systems and an Excel upload option is available.”

“The voluntary program is funded by the Checkoff and USDA, and will be available at no cost to producers,” he added, noting the program is scheduled to launch around mid-November. “You’re always going to have some gaps because [the program] is not mandatory but we want to start with as many people as possible. By doing so, producers put themselves in a better position with animal health officials – if they can show their herd is ASF negative, they will likely be able to move pigs more quickly,” Even said.

Work in progress

Even said the industry will never be completely prepared because a plan can easily become obsolete over time, but the more knowledge gained from experiences like the COVID-19 pandemic, the more tools the industry has at its disposal to deal with an FMD or other unusual circumstance.

“Every month that goes by, we get a little better at hardening our defenses,” Even said. “COVID-19 has really shown us our strengths and weaknesses and we can’t back off. I was a volunteer firefighter for 17 years in my home town so I know how important it is to constantly ‘sharpen the saw’ and be prepared.”

Editor’s Note: The USAHA covers topics ranging from zoonotic diseases, to regulations, to specific diseases in cattle, horses, sheep, cervids, poultry and pigs, and much more. Leaders from government, industry and academia work alongside producers to find solutions to health issues that can help animal agriculture thrive.