The dairy industry is a fine-tuned machine. From the farm to milk processors to the grocery store, today’s dairy industry is regional in scope and streamlined to run in a most efficient manner.
In North Carolina today, there are about 47,000 head of dairy cattle to provide fresh, wholesome milk to residents, compared with 81,000 dairy cows in 1996. Milk flows in and out of the state to distributors, packers and other destinations on a daily basis. The flow could come to a screeching halt if a foreign animal disease was discovered in the dairy herd. Specifically, state departments of agriculture have been concerned about the effect foot and mouth disease would have on the nation’s milk supply and related dairy industries. Not only are they concerned about a disruption to the milk supply, but also maintaining consumer confidence in the available milk supply during and after an outbreak.
Foot and mouth disease, or hoof and mouth disease, is a highly contagious foreign animal disease that infects cattle and other cloven-hooved livestock, such as swine, sheep, goats and deer. FMD is not a public health or food safety concern. However, FDA rules do not allow the sick or injured animals or their byproducts to enter the food chain.
For the past six years, North Carolina has been involved in the Mid-Atlantic Secure Milk Supply Plan Working Group to ensure that if foot and mouth disease were introduced into our dairy supply chain, the industry would be able to continue to function. A foot and mouth outbreak in Great Britain in the late 1990s caused a severe disruption to that country’s livestock and dairy industries. And state veterinarians aim to avoid that scenario here.
“The N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services was a founding member of the Mid-Atlantic Secure Milk Supply Plan Working Group,” said State Veterinarian Doug Meckes. “We see the value in being prepared for the worst so that we can hopefully avert the disaster or at least lessen it. Our biggest goal in case of an outbreak is to isolate the disease in such a way that the rest of the supply chain isn’t brought to a standstill.”
Part of the Mid-Atlantic Secure Milk Plan aims to get managers at dairy farms and dairy processing plants thinking ahead to how they would handle an outbreak. By creating protocols now, these farms are ready to respond quickly in case of an outbreak or ensure that they can continue to operate in case of being within a quarantine zone of a nearby positive farm. A certification process is in place to determine who meets the criteria of readiness. Dairy processing plants must create protocols for biosecurity and sanitation related to a foot and mouth outbreak.
North Carolina recently became the first state to issue certifications in readiness. A dairy farm and a milk processing plant were both certified as being ready for a foot and mouth outbreak. And several more dairies and processing plants are working to become certified as well.
The Milkco processing plant in Asheville became the first certified plant in the Mid-Atlantic region to pass the inspection process. Milkco sources raw milk from dairies within 100 miles of the plant and distributes to grocery stores, other manufacturing plants, restaurants and schools across the Southeast.
“I’m proud that we have buy-in from farmers and manufacturers alike in this process and are the first to achieve this status,” Meckes said. “If there is ever an outbreak, this cooperation will help us move quickly into response mode because many of the answers will already be prepared. It has the potential to have huge impacts on our response capabilities.”
The Rocky Creek Dairy in Olin became the first farm to be certified by the NCDA&CS. Owner Ben Shelton also been involved in the working group and has provided input from the working farm perspective. “This program adds a level of security for our farm,” Shelton said. “It offers a way to not only get milk off the farm, but also feed on. It took about two or three years of initial discussion to get the plan in place. It is a reasonable plan with reasonable expectations to get where we need to be.”
The other states in the Mid-Atlantic working group are Maryland, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Delaware, George, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. New York also has been participating in the working group, but is not a formal member. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal, Plant Health Inspection Service has funded the group.