Biosecurity Fundamentals

The basics of disease biosecurity, why a biosecurity plan should be implemented, and how to get a plan in motion.

he outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) in the United Kingdom attracted much media attention a number of years ago. Much animal suffering occurred and millions of animals had to be destroyed in the disease control efforts. Economic difficulties were severe for the British agricultural communities, and the cost to that economy is estimated to have exceeded $10 billion. More recently, an economically-devastating outbreak of highly-pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) occurred in the midwest US. Avoiding catastrophes such as these should continue to be a priority for all those involved in animal agriculture, even though the immediacy of the most recent crisis has worn off, and many people have largely forgotten about FMD and other foreign animal diseases (FADs, also known as trans-border diseases.)

What is biosecurity?

In the context of animal agriculture, biosecurity is a series of management steps and practices implemented to prevent the introduction of infectious agents into a herd or flock, the spread of these agents through the herd, and out of the herd to other herds or flocks. A biosecurity plan may involve screening and testing incoming animals, some sort of quarantine or isolation procedures for newly purchased or returning animals, and some type of monitoring or evaluation system for early detection of disease. Once an infectious agent is in a herd or flock a similar but slightly different set of management practices are employed to prevent the infectious agent from leaving the farm in animals or products.

Why is biosecurity important?

Biosecurity is important for a number of reasons. First, it is an essential aspect of on-farm food safety programs. Keeping food products wholesome and of highest quality is important for the health and well-being of consumers. This helps to ensure consumer demand for product, and therefore ultimately the profitability of animal agriculture enterprises. Secondly, biosecurity should help keep animal healthy and more productive. This benefits the farming community through greater efficiency and profitability, as well as the animals through experiencing less disease. Finally, a vibrant agricultural community is a positive influence on the economy of our state and nation, and an important resource in maintaining a healthy environment.

How do you start to develop a biosecurity plan?

The initial step in a biosecurity plan is to assess goals and key concerns of the farm. The producer along with his/her advisors needs to determine just what infectious agents are important in their plan. The introduction and spread of diseases such as FMD or HPAI are so catastrophic that federal and state regulations and plans are in place to attempt to prevent such occurrences. FADs require a special set of biosecurity plans because they could potentially cover such a broad range of animal species and geography. However, on the individual farm level a variety of common domestic bacteria and viruses can be identified as important disease problems and should be included in the biosecurity plan. On most dairy farms this would include diseases such as contagious mastitis, Johne’s, Salmonella spp., Bovine Virus Diarrhea (BVD), Neospora, Digital Dermatitis, and a few others. Once the types of disease agents are identified, a risk assessment should be completed.

What is risk assessment?

A risk assessment is a way of determining the presence, distribution, and severity the risk factors for a given disease. Once risk areas have been identified, appropriate control measures can be enacted. Acceptable levels of risk for a farm will be determined by what products are sold or what may be sold from the farm in the future. Typically this involves meat and milk, and possibly breeding animals, embryos, etc. Understanding what diseases are important for the sale of each of these products and understanding how disease may enter and spread within animal groups on the farm is the next step. This is followed by close evaluation of methods to prevent the disease from entering the herd from sources outside the farm. If key areas can be identified they are often called critical control points. Actions taken at these critical control points are the most effective way of implementing a biosecurity plan.

Who is involved?

In most cases the herd veterinarian works closely with the animal owner or herd manager to develop and begin the implementation of a biosecurity plan. However, every person who lives, works, or visits the farm has a role in the biosecurity plan. To make a biosecurity plan effective and easier to follow it is important to adopt practices that are customized to the individual farm setting and truly make a difference. Not all animal groups are equally susceptible to infection and not all human activities are equally likely to contribute to disease spread into, or within, the herd. Strategies should be developed to identify activities and animal groups that contribute to the risk of acquiring or preventing a specific disease. As part of that risk assessment, the severity or level of risk should be categorized as low, medium, or high. Emphasizing control or mitigation of high-risk animal groups and high-risk human activities can help to make the biosecurity plan more effective and simpler to implement. Cooperation and promotion of a sound biosecurity plan is important for the financial health of the farm, as well as the consumer through wholesome and high quality agricultural products.

What is bioterrorism or agroterrorism?

Bio- or agroterrorism is the intentional contamination of animals, plants, or humans with infectious agents (viruses, bacteria, protozoa, insects, or fungi) or toxins (nuclear, chemical, bacterial or fungal) with the express intent to cause disease or economic hardship in animals, agricultural systems, or humans. These intentional acts might be (partially) addressed in a biosecurity plan, although it can be very difficult and very costly to make a farm operation completely immune to bioterroristic acts.