|From The State Vet's Office|
|What If We Didn’t Regulate?|
Or have disease surveillance programs in place?
This will come as no surprise to people who know me; I ate three meals yesterday…did the day before that and the day before that. If fact, there are not many days I don’t eat three meals a day. I am not a vegetarian, so I eat meat at most meals. Probably like most of you I take for granted that, if I want a ham sandwich, I can have a ham sandwich. If I want a hamburger, I can have a hamburger. If I want a quarter of a barbecued chicken, I can have that, too. That is certainly not the case in many other parts of the world. Recently we have been hit with huge budget cuts at the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries. In fact, I don’t know what changes will occur due to budget cuts between the time I am writing this column and the time you read it. That has got me to wondering how things would be if we were not able to regulate or carry out our disease surveillance programs. It could change what I take for granted when I sit down to a meal.
As I pondered the "What if we didn’t?" question, I thought about it in respect to the classic Christmas movie, "It’s a Wonderful Life." The rest of this column will come from the imagination of a state regulatory official trying to figure what life would be like if we didn’t regulate or carry out disease surveillance. Fast forward twenty years……(remember this is fictional and just for the purpose of getting us thinking).
Driving through rural Alabama with my grandkids one Saturday afternoon, one of the kids asks, "Grandpa, why are there so many golf courses around here?" That one is easy to answer because in 2018 we lost all of our beef export markets since we were not collecting enough BSE samples to satisfy our export partners that we didn’t have BSE. The market dropped drastically and those who were marginal producers lost their farms. Tuberculosis had started making a comeback in cattle herds across the country in 2012, but since we were not testing for the disease nor requiring health certificates, bovine tuberculosis came into Alabama with a vengeance. In fact, it put most of our dairies out of business. For a while the federal government was trying to help the dairy farmers out, but the problem got so big the federal government could no longer handle the cost. By 2020, cattle farming was a rich man’s game and there was only a fraction of the farms left that were around in 2011. In 2021 though, an Alabama cattle producer took some of his cattle to a show out West where foot-and-mouth disease somehow got introduced. (The United States had discontinued Foreign Animal Disease Surveillance in 2015 since we hadn’t had a case of foot-and-mouth disease since 1927. Surveillance seemed like a waste of money.) He brought his cattle back to a show here in Alabama the next week and exposed a large number of farms. Most of our beef cattle farmers got out of the business after that because it was mostly just a hobby anyway. Some of the last farms to go are actually some of the nicer golf courses now.
The grandkids were amazed by my explanation about the golf courses. But, in all honesty, two of my grandsons are really showing some promise at getting golfing (the new national pass time) scholarships because there are so many golf courses you can play 18 holes for ten dollars. And most people tell me they can’t tell the difference between the grass-fed Brazilian beef and the old grain-fed beef we used to eat. I don’t know if I would say it in public, but there really is a difference in the meat. But for a long time the Brazilian beef was quite a bit cheaper than domestic U.S. beef. Then, about the time most of our farmers and ranchers went out of business, the Brazilian beef price sky-rocketed. They say it was something about having to pay for all of their new regulations. I don’t know. I think it’s just because they don’t have much competition. A lot of people think it’s not a bad trade-off. We pay high prices to other countries for their beef and dairy products, and they come to the United States and play golf on their vacations.
Then the grandkids wanted to know the story about why we can’t buy fresh eggs any more. You know, that was a really bad deal. It happened back in 2014, not six months after we discontinued our Avian Influenza Surveillance Program. It was really just an unfortunate turn of events. A man from North Alabama went to a poultry show down in South Alabama. There was one exhibitor who had several of his chickens get sick and die at the show. The man from North Alabama was a school bus driver from a community that had so many poultry farms you couldn’t swing a dead mule without hitting one. Well, you can guess what happened. In about four or five days to a week, those farms had chickens dying so fast they were just having to compost them right there in the chicken house. Everybody was fairly certain it was highly pathogenic avian influenza. However, since we no longer had any foreign animal disease diagnosticians and the laboratories were no longer set up to screen for highly pathogenic avian influenza, it took six days to get a definitive diagnosis. And by that time—well, you know what they say, "No need to shut the barn door after the horse has already got out." It completely devastated the poultry industry and it just never came back.
I went on to tell the grandkids about how we used to eat hamburgers all the time. But now that it costs $10 a pound, we only eat it once a week and maybe on special occasions. We never eat steak because at $40 a pound, you can buy a lot of tofu. When the kids asked how all of these things happened to cause us to lose animal agriculture here in the U.S., my explanation was simple. I told them that several years ago the economy took a severe downturn. That resulted in fewer tax dollars to fund government programs both on the state and national levels. The elected leaders had to make some hard decisions on what programs to fund and which ones to cut. And, I guess, they just didn’t understand the importance of agriculture.
Now, travel back to 2011. I’m not saying, if we stop regulating, things like I just mentioned will happen. And even though that was a fictitious scenario, it is not so farfetched it could not happen. We try to strike a delicate balance between assuring the safety of our food, the health of our herds and flocks, and making sure the environment is not contaminated and we do not restrict the farmer from doing what he does best. That is to produce the safest and most economical food supply in the world. Today, we at the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries along with our friends at USDA Veterinary Services are regulating, investigating and staying on the look-out for diseases that might cause you to dramatically alter your three-meals-a-day. Now I think I will have a double cheeseburger with a couple of slices of ham on it ... just because I can.
Dr. Tony Frazier is the State Veterinarian for Alabama.