On an island off the northeastern tip of Long Island, NY, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists are doing their part to safeguard the U.S. food supply, according to a report by USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.

At the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, a USDA research team works to ensure that the country is protected from exotic animal diseases that threaten livestock production in the United States and around the world. The center, now operated by the Department of Homeland Security, offers a safe and secure site for developing vaccines, diagnostic tests and other technology to help prevent animal disease outbreaks, and to respond to outbreaks that might occur.

ARS scientists at Plum Island investigate infectious diseases such as classical swine fever and foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). Recently, they renewed efforts to help combat African swine fever, a deadly pig disease that's invading other countries.

When research began on Plum Island nearly 60 years ago, the main focus was to detect and prevent FMD, which only affects cloven (or divided) hoofed animals such as cattle, swine, goats and sheep.  Considered the most economically devastating livestock disease in the world, FMD was eradicated from the United States in 1929, but it remains in other countries and is spreading.

While FMD is a serious animal disease, it is not a food safety or public health threat. And even though FMD is not a public health threat or a food safety concern, USDA remains focused on ensuring the disease does not reach U.S. shores so that the Nation continues to provide consumers worldwide with an affordable and steady meat and milk supply.

Great progress has been made in understanding how FMD and other viruses function – how they infect livestock and how the animal's immune system responds against infections. ARS scientists were the first to identify the primary site – certain cells in the back of the cow's throat –where the FMD virus infection begins in cattle.

They also have developed different vaccine delivery techniques – one for pigs and one for cattle – that protect animals from FMD virus until their vaccinations take effect. In addition, a novel technology that allows safe production of FMD vaccine in the United States is under development by a private company.

These are just a few examples the important research being undertaken by ARS scientists at Plum Island. ARS scientists are making important discoveries, while working with their counterparts in industry, international and U.S. government agencies, to help prepare for an emergency that could result from a foreign animal disease outbreak.

To learn more, check out the October 2013 edition of Agricultural Research magazine for a feature story on what ARS researchers are doing to guard the country against foreign animal diseases, available online next week at: http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/.