of Veterinary Medicine
This morning we set off in our two vans for the Mobile Eradication Center (MEC), a portable infectious disease outbreak investigation unit. On the way we picked up Helmut Surborg, a large animal veterinarian and friend of Dr. Hoenig's. Helmut has arranged the last couple days of the Hannover leg of our trip and he joined us for the tours today.
When we arrived at the MEC we saw a large white building that looked a lot like a pre-fabricated house or trailer that you might see being transported down a major interstate in the US, only much bigger. We were led inside the building by Dr. Josef Diekmann, a “task force veterinarian” who works for the Lower Saxony State Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety (LAVES) and is in charge of mobilizing the MEC and leading outbreak investigations. There was a long hallway inside the building with doors on either side. It was very sparse and had a somewhat sterile feeling about it. Dr. Diekmann brought us into a rather spacious conference room on the right side of the hallway. The table was set with coffee cups, sparkling water, and cookies. Setting out snacks for meetings is apparently a German custom we have grown to love this week.
In the conference room, Dr. Diekmann gave us a little background about himself and a presentation on European Union (EU) regulations and animal disease control. He studied veterinary medicine in Hannover and then practiced on all species for five years. He then went through veterinary officials training for two years, worked in the Lower Saxony Consumer Protection Office, and then the Task Force for Veterinary Affairs. There are no trade barriers between the 27 countries that are part of the EU, but there are 280 Border Inspection Points (BIPs) throughout the EU that help to ensure safe goods are being exchanged between countries. Within Germany it is the job of each of the 16 Federal States to oversee food surveillance and management. Within Lower Saxony alone, there are 41 local veterinary and food control authorities run by veterinarians and food inspectors. This is probably because Lower Saxony is the largest agrarian state in Germany (with approximately 2.5 million cattle, 9 million pigs and 90 million poultry). LAVES plays many parts in ensuring safe food and consumer products for Germany. They have 7 locations in Lower Saxony where they do lab analysis and research. The LAVES budget is 50 million Euro per year (about 70 million US dollars) and there are 8 labs with 3 “special aspect” departments. Some of the central tasks of LAVES include food safety, animal health, animal feed safety and market control, and analysis institutions. The lab work includes diagnosis of epizootic and zoonotic diseases such as BSE and Classical Swine Fever, hygiene checks of abattoirs and dairies, residue analysis (i.e. Antibiotics or heavy metals in food products or like last year when they discovered illegal mixing had led to high levels of dioxin, a highly toxic byproduct of manufacturing, in animal feed.), fish, game and poultry disease. There is also an Institute of “daily-use” goods that looks at things like detergents, food containers, cosmetics, tobacco products etc.
Dr. Diekmann then talked a little bit about the Crisis Management aspect of LAVES. He used the 2001 Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) outbreak in the UK, 2006 Classical Swine Fever outbreak, and the 2003 Avian Influenza outbreak in the Netherlands as examples. In any outbreak situation, he said, they are required to follow EU guidelines because if they don’t, they will be banned from trade within the EU. During an outbreak there are two investigative teams called into action- the Local Crisis Center, which handles manpower and material recruitment, press releases and reports; and the MEC team at the site of the outbreak, which investigates, does epidemiology, estimates animal value, is responsible for culling and testing samples, carcass removal, cleaning and disinfecting sites, and vaccinating animals. Dr. Diekmann stressed that the most important aspect of crisis management is not to forget the farmer and his family! The 2001 FMD outbreak caused a high suicide rate among young farmers in the UK who had completely lost their livelihood.
After the lecture we took a tour of the MEC which was comprised of 37 office/sanitary containers, and was equipped with very high tech capabilities. We started on the outside where there was a storage supply container that contained desks, chairs and other supplies. Then we walked around to the back door where we entered the “dirty” side of the MEC. This is where people would come in after being out in the field. They could go into any one of a handful of showers where they would leave their dirty clothes, shower and then cross to the “clean” side of the MEC through a door on the other side of the shower. We crossed through the showers back to the “clean” side where the conference room was located and looked into the other spare rooms that would serve as workspaces during an outbreak. So far, the MEC had only actually been used for outbreak training exercises. It is an expensive facility to keep up to date, every five years they have to replace their materials including vaccines, hazard suits, etc… However, in the face of an outbreak, the MEC would be an invaluable resource to get investigative materials and people on the scene quickly and efficiently.
After our tour of the MEC, we said goodbye to Dr. Diekmann, got back in the vans and traveled to our next destination on the agenda, the Institute of Milk (IFM). At the IFM, we had a lecture on the National Animal ID and Tracing System within the EU that aims to increase meat safety for consumers, withdraw suspicious animals from trade and trace meat during an investigation back to the source so that thorough epidemiology can be performed. For cattle, the ID system includes two yellow ear tags with a unique ID, a “passport”, complete farm records, and being entered into the national database. Every farmer, dealer, butcher, slaughterhouse etc… is required to abide by the identification system. In Germany, the system is centrally organized in Munich, with regional offices in each state. Local veterinarians and agricultural officials are required to enforce the laws that mandate that an animal without proper ID or one whose ID cannot be proven, must be slaughtered. This results in lost money to the producer. So, compliance with the ID laws is very high. According to the presentation, 99.9% of animals in Germany have an ID. Compliance is one of the big concerns against a national animal ID program in the US. In the EU, an animal must be tagged within 7 days of birth (3 days when internet registration is used) and there must be immediate notification to the regional office so the animal can receive its passport. Pigs, sheep, goats and equids also have an identification system with ear tags and a central database, although they are slightly less extensive than that of cattle.
We then got a background on what the IFM actually does on a day-to-day basis. The lab was one of three in Lower Saxony that analyzes milk quality for over 3.5 million samples per year for fat, protein, urea, somatic cell count (SCC), and pH. The German milk payment scheme requires an analysis, at minimum, of 4 times per month fat, protein, SCC; 2 times per month, bacteria colony forming units; 2 times per month, antibiotics; and 1 time per month, freezing point (to see if water is being added to get more total pounds of milk produced). An SCC over 400,000/ml, CFU of 100,000, antibiotics or added water can all lead to monetary penalties. They also do mastitis pathogen tests with PCR and mastitis monitoring with Dairy Herd Improvement samples.
After the lecture, we toured the facility. We went around back outside to where trucks drop off the milk samples every day and then into the cold milk storage room. Then we saw the instruments used to measure pH, protein, fat and where they do the culturing for mastitis pathogens.
After the tour we got back in the vans and headed to our final stop for the day, the Mars Pet Center in Verden Germany. You may already be familiar with Mars; they make chocolate (M and M’s), drinks and gum (Wrigley) among other products including pet food (i.e. Pedigree, Whiskas, Greenie, and Cesar). We talked with our guide about the process of pet food production in the EU. The first step is getting the materials, that “can’t look too natural, but must be comprised of natural ingredients.” Only animal by-products that are “fit for human consumption” may be put into pet food in the EU. Unlike in the US, rendering is not permitted here. The second step is to press, cook and chop the ingredients into the typical chunks found in pet food. The third step is to mix and pack the product. Finally, the fourth step is quality control, for example the product goes through x-rays to look for pieces of metal or hunks of bone.
Another part of quality control are palatability tests that are done at the Pet Center. We took a tour of the facility and saw where they keep the dogs and cats used in palatability experiments. It is sort of an intricate process that involves training the dog to “discriminate” between foods, meaning they can detect small differences in foods and the animal is consistent in their decision as to which food they choose to eat. They then do feces scoring to see how well the food passes through the digestive tract. The dogs were all kept in very nice stalls with access to the outside and not overcrowded. The cat studies were a little different. Each cat had a collar with a sensor that allowed it to open a specific tiny door that led to a little food bowl. The amount of food in the bowl was measured to see which one the cat chose. The cats also lived in pretty much a posh cat community with about 10 cats per room. The rooms had lots of climbing equipment, windows, plushy beds, and access to a meshed in outdoor area where they could go to bask in sunlight. Overall it was a very nice facility.
That was about it for the academic part of our day today. We saw a LOT of different aspects of food production, quality testing for human and animal products and the very cool Mobile Eradication Center as well as learned about past outbreaks and how they were handled. Now it’s time for dinner!
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