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All things considered: September 2009

Be a Good Neighbour


September 17, 2009
By Jim Knisley


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When it comes to on-farm biosecurity the go-to people may be the truck drivers.

When it comes to on-farm biosecurity the go-to people may be the truck drivers.

They see more farms in a month than government or industry inspectors see in a year. They may not come equipped with an alphabet soup of letters after their names or all kinds of fancy sampling and testing equipment. But they know what they’re seeing.

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For the most part what they see on poultry and livestock operations is good. The vast majority of farms have taken the biosecurity warnings to heart. The farms are clean, well run and biosecurity is taken very, very seriously and applied rigorously.

But there are some that have a few problems and a few that have many problems. A decade ago it would have been easy enough to shrug this off. Problems on a few farms weren’t considered a big deal. Today, they are a very big deal.

Avian influenza and assorted other pathogens have changed the world. Government organizations from the World Health Organization, down through national governments, state and provincial governments, and even local governments and local health agencies, are alert to the potential threat of diseases spreading from flock to flock, herd to herd and town to town.

There is also a very active amateur movement on the World Wide Web that is busy tracking and tracing the spread of diseases that originate in animals to humans. The current H1N1 flu is an example.

While government agencies and health professionals are now careful to point out that this is a human variant and have dropped the “swine flu” tag, innumerable bloggers have latched onto the fact that the first known case occurred in a Mexican village adjacent to a large hog operation. While most of the experts appear to believe this was coincidence, in the blogosphere the intensive hog operation is seen as the cause.

For now, the causation theory is operating on the fringes. From an on-farm perspective that is where you want to keep it.

In Canada, most of the concern about food safety is focused on food processors. Recent polls indicate that when Canadians think about food safety they worry about imported food from Asia, Africa, Mexico, Central America and South America.

The listeria outbreak of last year, which resulted in 22 deaths, certainly shook consumers.

Canadian processors are responding with vigour. Maple Leaf, which was the source of the listeria outbreak, is doing everything it can to ensure it never happens again. Maple Lodge has introduced advanced technology that destroys any pathogens in its deli products using extreme high pressure.

Both have launched public campaigns focusing on food safety.

The good news for farmers in all this is that the polls and surveys indicate that the public likes and trusts you. They also worry about your financial security and keeping you in business.

One poll even reported that the top concern among consumers (at about 25 per cent) was the profitability and sustainability of farming. The number two issue was the price of food at about 18 per cent and food safety came in at number three at 17 per cent. Meanwhile the poll indicated that more than half of Canadians have a positive impression of farmers. You can combine all this with a growing local food movement, increasing interest in where food comes from and the rebirth of many farmers’ markets.

Members of the public, in other polls, also indicate that they want the federal government to ensure that their food is safe. While they expect farmers and processors to produce safe food they seem to believe that it is up to the federal government to ensure it.

They may not know exactly how this is to be done. All they know is that it is the government’s job to ensure that whatever is required is done.

It then falls on processors and farmers to follow the rules. Ideally, government and industry can work together to develop rules that are effective from a food safety and biosecurity perspective; industry and producers will rigorously apply and enforce the rules and regulations;  there will be 100 per cent compliance because even a one per cent failure rate threatens everyone.

In the case of biosecurity this should be obvious. Allowing a virulent disease to take hold on one farm can threaten many, many farms. For food safety, it is more important. A breakdown in food safety can cause disease and even death; drives consumers away from products (remember BSE) and it can take years to recover.

Now back to the truck drivers. While the vast majority of what they see is good, some of it isn’t. There are a few farms that need to clean up their operations. It would be best if others in the industry advised them of this. But if that doesn’t work it’s more than likely that government will jump in and their message will be “clean it up, or we’ll shut it down.”


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