Health

Background

Biosecurity breaches a major factor in disease outbreaks

In intensive livestock farming, a good biosecurity protocol is essential as potentially harmful diseases can inflict huge damage. And it is not difficult to implement these protocols; the challenge is to live up to them as the human factor poses the greatest risk. Poultry World looks into some tools that can help raise awareness.
Dewulf said there are three golden rules for entrance and they apply to everyone entering the facilities: Use herd-specific footwear, herd-specific clothing and wash hands upon entering. Photo: Koos Groenewold
Dewulf said there are three golden rules for entrance and they apply to everyone entering the facilities: Use herd-specific footwear, herd-specific clothing and wash hands upon entering. Photo: Koos Groenewold

On 30 January 2021, Japanese authorities in both the Chiba and Miyazake prefectures confirmed a case of high pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). It was the seventh outbreak since December 2020 for the Chiba-based farm and led to the culling of some 1.5 million birds. According to a news report in Japan Times, most poultry farms hit by avian flu since last year could attribute the outbreaks to human error, including insufficient protection from wild birds and rodents.

Inspectors said that in 63% of barns the people working there did not take sufficient disinfection measures. Sadly, this human negligence is not an isolated incident. Around the world, disease outbreaks can most often be attributed to biosecurity breaches and human error.

Application of biosecurity measures

Biosecurity measures are designed to protect livestock from infection but must be applied consistently in order to be successful. In a 2011 study, researchers Manon Racicot, a veterinary epidemiologist at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and professor at the University of Montreal, and Jean-Pierre Vaillancourt, University of Montreal professor, used video cameras to investigate biosecurity compliance on 8 poultry farms in Quebec, Canada. The results revealed that there was much work to be done.

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Vaillancourt, who advises farmers and farm managers in Canada and other nations, including Mexico and France, said that not much has changed. The 2011 study recorded 44 different mistakes, many made repeatedly, over 883 visits by 102 individuals. Of the 44 possible errors:
- 27 (61.4%) were related to area delimitation;
- 6 to boots (13.6%);
- 5 to hand washing (11.4%);
- 3 to coveralls (6.8%);
- 3 to logbooks (6.8%).

The nature and frequency of the errors made suggested a lack of understanding of biosecurity measures. Education was seen as a means to bring about improvement.

Boot tags to monitor compliance

In a second project, Racicot and Vaillancourt used RFID tags, like those used in hospitals by healthcare workers, to monitor compliance on a layer farm with 8 employees in Canada. The tags were placed in the shoes of the workers, as well as in farm boots. When the worker’s personal shoes entered a clean zone in the barn the system generated a beeping sound. The same system was used to alert employees when they did not use hand sanitizer, Vaillancourt explained in a recent interview.

Boots are a major source of contamination, he said. In a study where they used modified bacteria that glowed in the dark, unclean boots distributed bacteria 10 metres from the point of entry. Contrary to popular thinking, the boots did not get any cleaner as the employee walked from one side of the barn to the other, said Vaillancourt.

44 farms in just 1 day

Once spread on-farm, it doesn’t take much for a pathogen to spread further on from one farm to another. When working with producers in France, Vaillancourt pointed out the issue of carcass collection by the rendering industry where, in one case, a collector visited as many as 44 farms in a single day. The spread can happen quickly, said Vaillancourt, and when response time is slow – in France, it took 8t days before the industry responded – the contamination can become widespread as well.

React immediately

Biosecurity is designed to deal with endemic conditions, including HPAI, said Vaillancourt. “But once you have a case of a serious condition like that, normal biosecurity is not going to be sufficient,” he said. “You need to be able to react quickly, you need to be able to communicate with the right people immediately, and you need to have the industry prepared to slaughter birds even before the government decides that it is necessary.”

Boosting response time

New disease spread mitigation technology from Canada could not only improve on-farm biosecurity, but shorten response times as well. The innovative platform, called Farm Health Guardian, quickly and accurately tracks in real time and shuts down disease spread within minutes of receiving a disease symptom report. The technology could be a disease game-changer if it’s widely adopted by the industry and its partners.

Real-time tracking

Farm Health Guardian uses multiple technologies – geofencing, smartphones and GPS – to track and record the movement of staff, visitors and vehicles in and out of production facilities in real time. The different technologies communicate with an app and provide contactless digital pre-screening, paperless check-in, vehicle passport and GPS tracking.

Tim Nelson, founder and president of Be Seen Be Safe Ltd. and creator of Farm Health Guardian, said the tracking tool offers many benefits. It’s touchless, which eliminates transfer risk by hands. In the event of an outbreak, reaction time isn’t slowed by the illegibility of visitor logs due to poor penmanship, and it’s quick and easy for visitors to use.

Real-time monitoring

When an individual in the network approaches the farm, questions – from whether or not the visitor is sick, if they’ve visited another farm in the past few days, or if they’ve recently travelled abroad – are sent directly to their phone. If that visitor doesn’t meet all the protocols, they receive a message saying that entry has been denied. That same message is sent to the system administrator and the barn manager. The system also works in drive-on drive-off situations as it remembers where the visitor has been before and when. Denial can, of course, be overridden at the administrator’s discretion.

Poultry industry feedback

During the trial and development stage, Nelson received valuable feedback from the poultry sector in Alberta, Canada. Many farmers, he said, were nervous about being tracked. Because of that feedback, a digital manual check-in option was also developed. The manual option doesn’t rely on GPS coordinates but records entry details only. Canadian farmers were also concerned that they’d be blamed for carrying a disease onto their farm. But Nelson said the only people who would know about the issue are the people who are or may be affected by it.

“So it does save money, it’s proven to work and it’s very fast”

Flag warnings and alert others

In an ideal world the network would include all moving players, including producers, feed suppliers, catching crews, egg collectors, manure haulers, barn cleaners, rendering companies and veterinarians. If someone in the network gets hit with disease, in just a few minutes the system can see where visitors went before and after the point of concern. It can flag warnings and alert others within the network as well. A manual track-and-trace method would have taken 4-5 days to complete, said Nelson. This past summer, Farm Health Guardian identified the point where a disease broke out on a Canadian hog farm in less than 10 minutes. The farm in question was locked down within 60 minutes. “So it does save money, it’s proven to work and it’s very fast,” said Nelson.

Prevention prevention prevention

While an alert system such as Farm Health Guardian offers an excellent solution once an outbreak occurs, producers’ true aim is prevention. In Belgium, University of Ghent researcher, Jeroen Dewulf, developed Biocheck, a system that helps producers around the world improve on-farm biosecurity. After answering a series of questions about on-farm biosecurity, participants receive a score and a report that shows where they can make improvements.

Mediocre score

In Belgium, on average, farmers received a score of 68% under the ‘visitors and farmworker’ category. This means that measures have been taken but that there is quite some room for improvement. Dewulf said there are 3 golden rules for entrance and they apply to everyone entering the facilities:
- Use herd-specific footwear
- Use herd-specific clothing
- Wash hands upon entering.

”...it is necessary to change your clothes when entering a stall or barn....”

The Biocheck results show that 74% of Belgian farms use herd-specific footwear and 65% have disinfection baths at the entrance to the stalls for footwear. The use of herd-specific clothing, such as coveralls, is implemented in 59% of cases. “It is quite obvious that clothes can carry infectious agents and therefore, it is necessary to change your clothes when entering a stall or barn, or at least put on a coverall,” said Dewulf. “These measures are quite easy to implement.”

Farm Health Guardian tracks and records the movement of staff, visitors and vehicles in and out of production facilities in real time. When an individual in the network approaches the farm, questions are sent directly to their phone. Photo: Holly McFarlane Photography
Farm Health Guardian tracks and records the movement of staff, visitors and vehicles in and out of production facilities in real time. When an individual in the network approaches the farm, questions are sent directly to their phone. Photo: Holly McFarlane Photography

Biocheck statistics show that, on average, 65% of visitors to Belgian broiler farms wash their hands before entering. Although this is not a bad number, hands can typically carry pathogens and it’s an easy enough parameter to control. Biocheck data shows that only 42% of farms have a central hygiene lock, an area to change clothes, and on farms with multiple housing units, only 61% have a separate hygiene lock per barn, said Dewulf.

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“Moreover, in the hygiene locks that are present, very often no clear separation is provided between the ‘clean’ and the ‘dirty’ area,” he added. These results appear to be even worse on Belgian layer farms. Herd-specific clothing received a score of 54%, while herd-specific footwear received a score of 57%. Hand hygiene received a score of 58%.

Contingency planning

Having a contingency plan in place can ease the stress when outbreaks occur. UK-based Livetec Systems offers this service, helping partnering operations develop a management plan that supports farmers if and when an outbreak occurs. They also offer equipment for humane slaughter and training solutions.

In a recent interview, technical director, Julian Sparrey, offered these tips for improving on-farm biosecurity during high-risk periods. People are usually the problem, he said.

During high-risk periods, producers should limit the number of visitors on-farm. Those who have to visit – egg pick-up and feed delivery trucks, for example – should park well away from the main barn. Farmers, said Sparrey, should provide visitors with a portal to change clothing and footwear before walking on-farm. All visitors should be recorded, including part-time staff. Dead bins, he said, should be placed on the perimeter of the farm. Vehicles that pick-up dead birds should never enter the farm, especially during an outbreak. If a vehicle does enter the farm, producers need to clean up after it, said Sparrey. Having a concrete parking spot near the feed silo is ideal for thorough cleaning.

“The endless phone calls are what keep farmers up at night.”

If an outbreak does occur, government inspectors will come to the farm to complete a 40-page questionnaire. This causes a lot of anxiety and usually requires many follow-up calls. The endless phone calls are what keep farmers up at night, said Sparrey. To prepare farmers, Livetec Systems walks them through the document before an incident occurs. That way the paperwork is already prepared for when the inspectors visit the farm.

Sparrey advises producers to keep digital records off-farm, preferably outside biosecure areas. In the event of an outbreak, Livetec Systems will act as an intermediary between the government and the farmer. They manage the proofs of cleaning and re-certification to re-open as well. “We might not be able to the stop the disease but we can reduce the impact on individual farmers, because it’s devastating,” said Sparrey. “Farmers are not producing birds to be killed on-farm. They don’t like to see this sort of thing happening and anything we can do to prevent it or make the process go a bit more smoothly, then that’s good.”