Repairing or replacing the “worn out” buildings at the 54-year-old Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC), located just off the coast of Long Island, NY, is not a viable option for protection of the U.S. pork industry, says Jennifer Greiner, DVM, director of Science and Technology, National Pork Producers Council (NPPC).

The federal facility is responsible for research and diagnosis on foreign animal diseases, and development of vaccines to protect against those diseases.

Island Not Suitable Site

The NPPC testified recently at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Over-sight and Investigations regarding a new site for the study of foreign animal diseases.

Five states on the mainland are under consideration for the new National Bio and Agri-Defense Facility (NBAF), including sites in Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas.

Howard Hill, DVM, chief operating officer of Iowa Select Farms based at Ames, IA, has spent more than 30 years researching animal diseases. He testified on behalf of NPPC.

While Plum Island was considered the ideal spot to safely study exotic diseases, there are “serious drawbacks to having the facility stay there,” he says.

Building a new facility on the island “would be prohibitively more expensive than on the mainland,” says Hill. It's difficult to recruit top scientists to work at Plum Island because of the high cost of living in the area and the inconvenience of the one-and-a-half mile ferry ride to work each day, he adds.

Another reason for moving the site to the mainland is that Congress has shown over the last 20 years that it is reluctant to appropriate the funds needed to maintain Plum Island as a state-of-the art, world-class facility, Greiner points out. Part of that problem, again, stems from the fact that it is very expensive to ferry people and building materials to Plum Island.

NPPC has also learned that local communities around Long Island don't like having the Plum Island facility in their backyard and are adamantly opposed to its expansion, she says.

Risk Profile Needed

Instead of just conducting a risk assessment, the NPPC has asked the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees Plum Island, to work on a comprehensive risk profile to determine the best site, adds Greiner.

That risk profile must assess each area for:

  • Susceptible animal populations that could be exposed to an outbreak should disease organisms escape from the facility;

  • The ability of the state and federal governments to quickly control and eradicate a disease;

  • The impact of an outbreak on the local environment and the wildlife population; and

  • The economic consequences to the area's livestock population should an outbreak occur.

Technology has advanced quite a bit in the past decade that would allow proper safeguards for a lab to be built on the mainland, Greiner notes.

Address Plan of Work

While most of the current debate surrounds the location and cost of the new facility, consideration must also be given to the anticipated scope of work at the NBAF, Hill stresses.

NBAF's focus will be multi-disciplinary, meaning it will focus on human and animal diseases, particularly zoonotic diseases. A focus on zoonotic diseases is a departure from the focus at PIADC.

“While we support the need for a high-containment, biosafety level-four facility for researching zoonotic diseases in large animals, the swine industry is concerned that the animal health portion of this mission will be subordinated to the more publicly supported human health agenda,” Hill says.

What's needed are assurances that USDA and DHS will work together to provide NBAF the resources to achieve and enhance its mission to protect the U.S. livestock industry and meat exports against catastrophic economic losses caused by foreign animal diseases, he testified.

NPPC's testimony suggests there are lessons to be learned from construction of USDA's new National Animal Disease Center (NADC) in Ames, IA. The facility was designed to meet the anticipated needs of animal agriculture based on the scope defined by USDA and the livestock industry. That design, however, was modified during construction to meet budget constraints.

A second major lesson from the Ames project is that new buildings with high bio-containment levels are more expensive to operate. Higher maintenance and utility costs have left NADC with inadequate operating funds, thereby limiting the purpose for which it was built.

“The location of the NBAF must be based on assessed risks rather than on which entity is willing to build such a facility,” Hill concludes. “Location should be reexamined to see if the ‘island effect’ can be recreated by siting the facility in an area with low densities of livestock and wildlife. And, we need the new facility to enhance the capabilities of our industry with regard to research and treatment for all foreign animal diseases.”