Securing Our Food Animal Supply

Stopping viruses and diseases that threaten the animals we depend on for food requires a highly-coordinated, all-hands-on-deck effort – one that Iowa State is leading.

By Erin Peterson
forward Magazine, Iowa State University Foundation

The Big Picture

Turkey farms tend to be noisy places, full of thousands of chattering, social birds. But at hundreds of farms in the spring of 2015, that high-energy vibe changed almost overnight. “People walked into the barns and it was silent,” explains Jim Roth, director of the Center for Food Security and Public Health at Iowa State University. “They knew something was wrong.”

As the numbers of sick birds mounted, government agencies, industry leaders and consumers turned to Iowa State for help. Diagnosticians in Iowa State’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory worked around the clock with researchers in the College of Veterinary Medicine and across the university to diagnose samples from farms nationwide and pinpoint the cause of the illness.

Hongwei Xin, Iowa Egg Council Endowed Professor and director of the Egg Industry Center, and his team fielded the media’s questions about whether eggs and turkey meat were safe to eat (they were), and whether the virus could be transmitted to humans (it couldn’t). Egg Industry Center staff also worked closely with the industry to answer daily challenges of coping with an unprecedented crisis, and fielded research proposals from across the nation to focus on avian influenza studies. Likewise, ISU Extension and Outreach specialists played a vital role in disseminating up-to-date research-based information and resources to producers, veterinarians and consumers.

With the virus contained – for now – Iowa State researchers have been charged with creating a new action plan to use for future disease outbreaks among poultry.

Iowa State’s role in managing the avian influenza crisis made headlines, but it’s just one of the many food-animal challenges the university’s experts are tackling. Its researchers were the first to diagnose the recent outbreak of porcine epidemic diarrhea, a disease that killed 8 million pigs, and they played a critical role in identifying the far less contagious but, still troubling, Seneca Valley Virus in pigs.

Thanks to a vast network of experts and research, cutting-edge technology,and powerful partnerships and programs, Iowa State helps the state’s $16 billion-a-year food-animal industry hum along. As significantly,the university is guiding key national strategies and training food-animal
experts around the world.

As the university looks ahead, it seeks even more effective ways to prevent outbreaks, diagnose and contain diseases, and train tomorrow’s research and industry pioneers.

“We have a robust and fast-moving research program, we’re educating veterinarians who go on to be leaders all over the world, and we’re devoted to service,” says Lisa Nolan, the Dr. Stephen G. Juelsgaard Dean of Veterinary Medicine. “We need to continue to invest in all of these things so we can reach our goal of being the best college of veterinary medicine in the world.”

From lab to industry to classroom

Iowa State’s food-animal research spans an array of scientific disciplines – biology, chemistry, engineering and public health – in ways that quickly become head- spinningly complex. But what grounds the work is scientists’ singular focus on turning big ideas and surprising discoveries into practical solutions that benefit the industry and students.

For example, Kyoung-Jin Yoon, a diagnostic virologist and professor of veterinary diagnostic and production animal medicine, is developing diagnostic tools that allow for broader virus detection. “Many tests are only used when you know exactly what targets you’re looking for, but my work looks at ways to identify ‘families’ of viruses,” Yoon says.

Such work can have an impact in an area where Iowa State is already an undisputed leader: its Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. The VDL’s 135 faculty and professional staff members currently process more than 85,000 cases from the industry each year – the largest caseload in the country. Among other things, diagnosticians help farmers and practicing veterinarians unravel the mystery behind an animal’s unidentifiable illness, or assure the health of an animal or herd.

That vast caseload also serves as a rich source of applied research questions and case studies for the next generation of veterinarians, diagnosticians and microbiologists, says Patrick Halbur, professor and chair of the department of veterinary diagnostic and production animal medicine, and VDL executive director. In fact, the caseload’s abundance may partly be why nearly two-thirds of Iowa State veterinary students choose a food-animal specialty – a rate about five times higher than that of peer schools.

The caseload may also help attract and retain some of the world’s best researchers. With interesting and complex cases arriving at Iowa State’s doorstep daily, researchers may see unexpected conditions that fascinate them or intuit patterns that they can pursue more rigorously in their research.

“These cases can lead to the development of new diagnostic tools and vaccines, or they can help us discover emerging pathogens,” says Rodger Main, professor and VDL director of operations. The diagnostic lab is even helping researchers find ways to sidestep disease entirely, Main says. “Diagnostics for preventive medicine is the fastest growing area of the lab.”

Thinking bigger

Each of these components – the research, the diagnostic lab and its work with industry, teaching and outreach – work together in ways that elevate the other elements, providing new opportunities for Iowa State’s researchers to hone their expertise, for students to build their knowledge and confidence, and for Iowa State to continue to serve the state and the world with the best information and service on food-producing animals.

The federal government, for example, has relied on the university to develop national plans for food security. In 2008, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service charged Iowa State with developing a Secure Egg Supply Plan for the nation. The plan, designed for use during a disease outbreak, provides critical guidance on monitoring flocks for diseased birds, tracking birds during transit, and using methodical cleaning and disinfection processes to prevent disease from spreading.

This plan was the blueprint for action when avian influenza hit farms last spring. The industry’s close adherence to its guidelines prevented the disease from spreading more widely, while ensuring that eggs and meat from chickens and turkeys sold to consumers was safe to eat. Updates to the plan since last spring’s outbreak are designed to contain the spread of future variations of the disease – which typically arrive in the spring and fall – even more tightly. Iowa State also has been charged with developing the secure supply plans for turkey, beef, milk and pork.

In addition to rolling out national food security plans, Iowa State is developing programs for improving international veterinary education for the World Organization for Animal Health, an organization with 180 member countries around the world. “We always have to be thinking about the next big, bad thing,” Roth says. “We have to invest in these areas because an outbreak could devastate the economy.”

Iowa State’s global reach is not the only way that the university’s researchers are thinking bigger. Some of the college’s most important food-animal research has implications for human health as well.

For example, researchers, including Yoon, are doing work to understand the vexing mechanism by which viruses subtly alter themselves in ways that allow them to attack their animal hosts in new ways, year after year. While these viruses are frustrating for those working to keep food animals healthy, they’re also a huge problem in human medicine.

Other researchers within veterinary medicine are studying animal models for variations of human diseases and conditions, including stroke, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. This work often serves as a springboard into solutions for human health.

The road ahead

There is no question that Iowa State’s leadership in food-animal research, teaching and outreach is growing. But as the world’s population rises and as globalization brings the potential of transporting new animal diseases from one location to another in a single airplane flight, the challenges are growing just as fast.

And while the university has stepped up to make sure the state, the country and the world are ready to face these issues, resources are admittedly stretched thin. Since the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab was built in the 1970s, the number of staff members in animal agriculture has quintupled. The buildings now used for animal agriculture work, including renovated barns from the 1920s and a 40-year-old building ill-designed for today’s biosecurity challenges, are bursting at the seams.

That’s why more spacious and technologically-sophisticated facilities are at the top of the university’s list as it plans for the future. Scholarships that can lighten tuition costs and attract top veterinary students are vitally important, such as the Iowa Pork Producers Association Fellowships in VDPAM, established to recruit individuals to Iowa State to pursue graduate studies and work on research problems of importance to the swine industry.

Also essential are endowed professorships that lure exceptional faculty – the very people who will keep us safe by fighting diseases in both humans and animals, with immense implications globally.

Together, such investments at Iowa State will provide the university the ability not only to meet the emerging disease challenges in animal agriculture, but to defeat them.

June 2016