The US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is celebrating half a century of protecting US borders from animal disease and enforcing the Animal Welfare Act. The USDA created APHIS in April 1972 to consolidate animal and plant health inspection duties within a single agency.
Kevin Shea has overseen the agency since his appointment as administrator in 2013. Shea recently spoke to AVMA News about the broad range of issues within the agency’s scope, such as preventing the practice of horse soring and protecting US livestock from foreign animal diseases. The APHIS administrator discussed what the next 50 years may look like for the agency and encouraged practitioners looking for a career change to consider working for APHIS.
The following responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How has the role of APHIS veterinarians in protecting animal and public health changed over the last 50 years?
They have a much bigger role in providing information. We still have a lot of veterinary boots on the ground, as it were, with veterinarians doing some of the same things they did 50 years ago, such as inspecting cattle as they cross the border. I believe it was 50 years ago we were in the midst of a Newcastle disease outbreak—like we are now with avian influenza—and we’ve got veterinarians overseeing operations all around the country as we’re dealing with these outbreaks. So in some respects, the role of APHIS veterinarians hasn’t changed, but there’s a lot more of an information, science-driven role for veterinarians now. We have more people today involved in the information side, engaged in epidemiology, predicting where and how these outbreaks are going to move, than we did in the past.
Another big change is a lot of what our veterinarians do is driven by trade. Fifty years ago, we were in the midst of our long-term eradication programs for brucellosis and screwworm and tuberculosis and so forth. Now, much of what we do is designed to keep trade moving. When I say trade, I really mean our exports.
And then, of course, COVID has reminded everyone about the one-health concept, that most of the new diseases showing up in humans now originate in animals.
What are a few of the significant milestones for APHIS over the past half-century?
There are two that stand out to me: the eradication of screwworm and brucellosis. We’ve driven screwworm all the way out of North America, and I think that’s been a huge accomplishment. When I joined APHIS in 1978, brucellosis probably dominated 75% of APHIS Veterinary Services at the time, maybe more, but we eradicated brucellosis everywhere we can eradicate it. I say that because, of course, there is a disease reservoir in the Yellowstone National Park area, in bison and elk, and it occasionally seeps out of the park.
Another thing I want to say is that these periodic outbreaks of foreign animal diseases, like high-path avian influenza and Newcastle disease, we’ve wiped them out on several occasions. That not only saves the producers involved, it also saves everyone in the country, really, when it comes to food supply and prices and export markets. And one other was bovine spongiform encephalopathy. We did the necessary surveillance and testing that we could say this animal disease is not spreading in this country. That went a long way in saving our beef markets in the early 2000s.
What is the USDA doing to prevent African swine fever and other foreign animal diseases from entering the United States?
We have strict regulations on what can enter the country, and for any country where such diseases exist, we prohibit imports of their product. We count on our partners at US Customs and Border Protection to do a lot of border and port-of-entry inspection, so there’s that.
We are also very deeply involved with international organizations such as the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) to get good international standards in place.
And then, of course, when a disease gets particularly close, like African swine flu in the Dominican Republic, we take direct action. US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack authorized us to spend up to half a billion dollars to help the DR eradicate the disease. That sort of direct action goes back before APHIS, to the Bureau of Animal Industry, which actually helped eradicate foot-and-mouth disease in Mexico.
APHIS does a good job of keeping animal diseases out of the county, but a lot of credit also goes to the animal industry itself, which does an awful lot of self-regulating, inspection, and enhanced biosecurity. Our state partners, the state veterinarians, we work closely with all of them, too.
The USDA recently withdrew a long-standing proposed rule that would amend the Horse Protection Act regulations. Are there any updates in proposing new rules that incorporate the findings from the latest National Academies report on horse soring? (Soring is the practice of inflicting pain to exaggerate the leg motion of horses to gain an advantage in the show ring.)
We withdrew that rule because the data that supported it was outdated, and we wanted to use new data plus the National Academies report to come out with a more solid rule. There are people opposed to what we do in horse protection, and they’re not shy about suing us. So when we put a regulation in place, we want it to be as airtight as possible. To have just used the old rule, I think, would’ve made us vulnerable for a legal attack. We want to put out an up-to-date rule based on good data, and it’s our intention and Secretary Vilsack’s intention to do that. We hope to do it, certainly, by the end of this calendar yet. And, of course, we’re always hoping Congress might act, too.
The Beagle Brigade has become very popular and is very effective at keeping illegal food products out of the country. Would you please tell us more about this program and where the program is going in the future?
It can only grow. I know many states, particularly California, which is always at risk because so much comes in there, they want more Beagle Brigade dogs, not just at our ports but at the follow-up ports where things move in from the port into the next warehouse . So we’re trying to figure out how to do that. It’s one thing to train the dogs, but you’ve got to train their handlers, too, and it’s an expensive proposition. Much of our Beagle Brigade used rescued beagles, and now we’re finding it hard to get dogs. The dogs can do more than just sniff out sausages and oranges. We’re finding they can sniff out plant diseases in trees and so forth, so we see lots of growth coming from the Beagle Brigade.
Did the COVID-19 pandemic bring greater attention to the role APHIS plays in protecting public health through zoonoses surveillance and related programs?
Absolutely. Congress actually gave us $300 million in the American Rescue Plan Act with the stated purpose to do surveillance on SARS-CoV-2 in animals. We will certainly do what Congress told us to do in that regard, but we think we can leverage that funding to look for other diseases in animals and look for the next SARS-CoV-2. That would be the better thing to do. We are working right now to put in place a framework to do this kind of work with state partners, university partners, industry—whoever—to come up with better methods to detect the next SARS-CoV-2 since it almost certainly will come out of animals.
Related to that, has Congress funded the agency at a level to protect our nation from threats from foreign animal diseases?
I think so. Of course, we can probably always use more inspectors—who mostly are Customs and Border Protection employees, but they carry out our rules. We probably need more of them. Now, much of that’s funded by user fees, but clearly, if anything, we do need more work at the borders and the ports of entry to do the proper inspection.
In June 2021, the USDA Office of the Inspector General issued a report identifying data reliability issues with reports generated from APHIS’ Animal Care Information System database. The OIG also found that APHIS did not consistently address complaints it received regarding commercial dog breeders or adequately document the results of its follow-up. Can you talk about how the agency has resolved these issues?
We’re retiring ACIS, and we have a new system in place that we hope that will address the problems with ACIS. In terms of following up on complaints, the Animal Welfare Act appropriation is rather limited. We have about 200 people in our Animal Care unit; two-thirds or so are actually out inspecting, but that’s just the first part. You can think of our animal care inspectors like police on the beat. And police on the beat can write something up, but then someone else has to write a report to get someone indicted if the police officer arrests somebody. And then there has to be a judge to hear the case and so forth. It’s like that with us, and so it’s not just how much we can do, how many inspections we can do and violations we can find. We have to be able to process through the system. And, of course, the accused have the right to due process. I met with some of the animal rights advocacy groups earlier this year, and I said we all wish we could do more. All of our instincts are like that. I’m not a veterinarian, but all the people who work for me in that role are veterinarians, and you don’t become a veterinarian unless you love animals. Everyone’s heart’s there, and we want to do the best we can, but there are the constraints of a legal system, and that’s part of the issue, of course.
What’s the role of APHIS over the next 50 years in protecting and promoting animal agriculture?
I think you’ll see us having a much larger role in one health and technology. There’s a lot of work being done in biotechnology and animals, and I can see that becoming a whole new industry, if you will, certainly in the next 10 to 20 years. How do we ensure that those animals created by the biotechnological methods are regulated? What kinds of human health impacts might they have? As for the issue of sustainability, how animal agriculture operates is likely to change. I don’t know what that means and can’t predict that at this time, but it’s going to change, and with that comes all sorts of disease-related implications. But the same bottom line for us is keeping the animals healthy and keeping the producers profitable. I like to say that a lot because we could do a lot in APHIS to keep diseases from spreading, but we might put everyone out of business doing it.
Any final thoughts?
Yes, a big one, actually. We’re having a hard time hiring veterinarians, just like everybody else is, and we’re looking at better ways of doing that. But I would say this: While we will always be recruiting out of the veterinary schools and looking for people to make their career in regulatory medicine, I would make an appeal to some mid-career and later-career veterinarians who maybe want to get out of the private practice grind and do something different and work for us. When I first started working for APHIS over 40 years ago, there were quite a few older veterinarians like that, people that have been in the business a long time and want to do something a little different. So, while we will recruit the schools, I’d like to encourage veterinarians in other parts of their career to consider this kind of work.