The slaughter of millions of chickens wordwide due to bird flu outbreaks has painted a terrifying picture of the devastation a disease can bring to the poultry industry. This epidemic is forcing the United States to tighten its biosecurity practices-a measure that some say is grossly overdue.
The poultry industry has enjoyed enormous success and growth over the past few decades. Success, however, has its downfalls. The increasing demand for poultry has, logically, increased poultry population density. An increase in population density of flocks increases the risk of spreading diseases within flocks and from one flock to another.
Biosecurity involves protecting poultry flocks from disease, as well as preventing the spread of diseases once they have been detected. Dr. Jean-Pierre Vaillancourt, associate professor of Poultry Health Management at NC State University, stresses the containment aspect of biosecurity. "Biosecurity is like an immune system-it can't completely prevent diseases, but it can greatly minimize the damage," Vaillancourt says. Containment has become especially important with the threat of bioterrorism and the risk of deliberate contamination of the food supply.
But keeping diseases out of flocks is only one element of biosecurity. Dr. Charles Beard, vice president for research and technology of the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, describes biosecurity as an "educational process."
"Biosecurity is a mindset and knowledge base," says Beard.
Education at all levels of the process is perhaps the most important goal of biosecurity. Awareness of how diseases spread can prove vital to the health of flocks. For example, a visiting friend or serviceman traveling from one farm to another can unknowingly carry diseases on clothing, equipment or vehicles. Simply changing clothes or disinfecting equipment and vehicles could prevent potential disaster.
Choosing the right location for poultry farms is also a vital, sometimes overlooked, component of good biosecurity practices. A farm that is located too close to roadways, other farms, waterways inhabited by wild birds, or processing plants faces a greater risk of contracting and spreading diseases from flock to flock.
As with any educational process, adopting a biosecurity plan will take both time and effort. Everyone involved in the process-from feed delivery drivers to growers to service reps-will have to cooperate with each other, training and retraining themselves to adopt cleaner, safer practices. A single weak link in the chain could greatly compromise biosecurity measures.
What biosecurity may not involve, surprisingly, is an overwhelming amount of money. When chosen correctly, a biosecurity plan shouldn't overly interfere with day-to-day operations, and will involve feasible and cost effective measures that can be achieved in a short amount of time.
"There's a lot that can be corrected at no cost at all," says Beard.
Instead of shelling out big bucks for new facilities and fancy equipment, growers can start by simply taking a look at their surroundings and re-evaluating their current practices.
One such tool that may be of help is the Biosecurity Training CD offered by the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association. This CD, which is available for free on the association's web site (www.poultryegg.org), is a biosecurity training program complete with disease information, producer resources, educational resources and self-assessment tools. The self-assessment tools enable users to calculate their biosecurity "score" and find ways to raise their level of biosecurity. A series of videos on the CD explain the components of the "chain of infection" (see sidebar) and describe strategies for breaking this chain.
There is talk that the day may come when we will see "biosecurity coordinators" and other individuals given the specific job of monitoring a farm's biosecurity. This would certainly be a well-needed and extremely beneficial service to the poultry industry. But for now, experts say that it remains the responsibility of those directly involved in the industry to step up their own biosecurity practices and protect themselves and their flocks from potentially disastrous disease outbreaks.
"The day is over when we are going to ignore biosecurity issues," says Dr. Beard.