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Local View: Farm Bill can help prevent animal disease in Minnesota

As the longtime owner of North Country Veterinary Clinic in Grand Rapids, I'm no stranger to the harmful effects of contagious diseases on both pets and food animals. When farm animals become sick, the impact can be widespread. For instance, the 2015 avian influenza outbreak cost Minnesota more than $300 million. Minnesota's poultry farmers and plant workers weren't the only individuals directly affected: The outbreak also cost local jobs in trucking and the animal-feed industry.

Highly contagious animal diseases can eliminate entire herds or flocks of animals, and the next major disease outbreak could happen at any time. Outbreaks can quickly escalate and inflict catastrophic harm on our food supply and agricultural communities — particularly in states like Minnesota where animal agriculture is so important to our economy.

Congress has an opportunity to improve our national animal disease-prevention and response capabilities in the 2018 Farm Bill by instituting permanent, full funding for a three-pronged approach to animal health: one, a national Animal Pest, Disease, and Disaster Prevention and Response Program; two, the existing National Animal Health Laboratory Network; and three, a national livestock vaccine bank with immediate attention to foot and mouth disease, which is highly contagious and can sicken cattle and hogs.

These three complementary programs would work together to vastly improve our animal-disease preparedness so we can better respond at the first sign of high-consequence animal disease and potentially prevent large-scale outbreaks.

For example, an Animal Pest, Disease and Disaster Prevention and Response Program would provide opportunities to improve communications between state officials, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and on-the-ground veterinarians to coordinate swift, uniform responses. It also would enable new training opportunities, technologies, and response protocols.

Similarly, full funding for the National Animal Health Laboratory Network would help ensure that veterinarians receive timely, official diagnoses during an animal-disease outbreak. The network's labs play a critical role in animal-disease response by quickly identifying and confirming diseases so veterinarians can take appropriate action. During the 2015 avian influenza outbreak, our existing network was inundated with samples, delaying response times and hindering effective management of the disease outbreak. Increased, reliable National Animal Health Laboratory Network funding is essential for rapidly addressing and responding to an animal-disease outbreak.

Working in tangent with these two initiatives, a national livestock vaccine bank would provide guaranteed access to foot-and-mouth-disease vaccines that could be used in the event of an outbreak. If left unchecked, a domestic foot-and-mouth outbreak could cost an estimated $200 billion over 10 years. Over time, this vaccine bank could be scaled and prioritized to address other highly dangerous and pressing animal diseases.

Luckily for Minnesota, many lawmakers recognize this need as both chambers of Congress work to finalize the 2018 Farm Bill. Lawmakers can play a critical role in protecting Minnesota's farmers and ranchers by providing full and permanent funding for this approach.

We don't know when the next animal-disease outbreak will occur, but we do know it could have significant consequences for our food supply and economy. By taking a proactive approach to animal health, we can help prevent the next outbreak from becoming a disaster.

John Howe is owner of North Country Veterinary Clinic in Grand Rapids, is president-elect of the American Veterinary Medical Association, and is past president of the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association.