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Lab System Aims to Protect State’s Livestock

Taylor Hillman Cattle, Poultry

Chicken Farm, Poultry
Poultry veterinarian Gregg Cutler recalled the day in early 2015 when one of his clients reported an unexpected increase in bird mortality at a turkey farm in Stanislaus County. The birds were immediately taken to a diagnostic lab in Turlock and within hours, the lab identified the presence of an avian influenza virus in the flock.

“Because of that very quick diagnosis, we were able to work with federal and state authorities and within a day put an end to that flock and an end to the potential spread of that disease throughout our entire poultry population, which could have decimated our economy,” Cutler said.

Other states were not so lucky. That same year, the nation experienced the worst—and most expensive—outbreak of avian influenza, with millions of birds depopulated.

Cutler said California poultry farms avoided a catastrophe thanks in large part to the work of the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System, a program within the University of California School of Veterinary Medicine that serves as the front line for surveillance of emerging animal diseases that could wreak havoc on the state’s animal agriculture. He said the system also plays an important role in maintaining food security and food safety, safeguarding public health and protecting the state’s agricultural economy.

There are four labs within that system. The main diagnostic lab and headquarters is in Davis. The other three branches are in Turlock, Tulare and San Bernardino. The Tulare lab will soon be moving to a new building, unveiled last week at a dedication ceremony.

When fully equipped, the 29,000-square-foot Alex A. Ardans Tulare Branch Laboratory—named after the lab system’s founding director—will be able to provide rapid detection and response to both routine illnesses and severe animal diseases such as avian influenza and foot-and-mouth disease. Testing will be available for livestock, poultry and horses.

Pam Hullinger, the incoming director of CAHFS, assumes her position Nov. 15, replacing Richard Breitmeyer, who retired earlier this year. She said with increased globalization and travel, there’s growing concern about what foreign diseases may “hop on a plane and come over here.” To keep such dangers at bay, it’s critical that the state keeps up with modern technology and new and novel approaches to finding the next emerging disease threat, she added.

“That’s why it’s so exciting to have this new lab, because that really strengthens our capabilities to do that in California,” Hullinger said.

The new lab replaces a lab that since the 1980s has been housed at the UC Veterinary Medical Teaching and Research Center in Tulare. That small facility was designed more for research than as a diagnostic lab, explained John Adaska, the branch chief in Tulare.

Not only will the new lab be much larger, he said, but it will have expanded testing capabilities that are not currently available. This will improve turnaround time for producers and take pressure off the other branches.

The roomier facility was designed so that animals could come in on one side of the building and exit the other side, allowing greater efficiency in the way the lab handles animals when doing necropsies.

Pens and chutes also have been added for safe handling of live animals that come in for testing. In addition, the new building will be more secure, Adaska said, which helps to ensure the integrity of test results.

He pointed out that even though the main focus of CAHFS has always been in surveillance of foreign animal disease threats, the four labs perform many tests on a daily basis to help producers diagnose more-common illnesses that affect their herds and flocks. Last year, CAHFS—which operates in partnership with the California Department of Food and Agriculture—conducted more than half a million diagnostic tests.

“It’s a broad sweep of diagnostic capabilities that they do, beyond that critical underlying function that mobilizes the state if there were an emerging animal disease of a major scale,” said David Daley, a cattle rancher and associate dean of the College of Agriculture at California State University, Chico.

The four labs are strategically located, based on the livestock demographics closest to each. The Davis lab deals with all livestock species, including race horses, and performs toxicology testing, expensive procedures that are offered only in that lab. The Turlock lab works exclusively with avian species, serving the large number of poultry farms in the Central Valley. The Tulare branch, located in the state’s top milk-producing region, handles a lot of cattle but also birds. The San Bernardino branch offers expertise in aquatic species, backyard birds, plus exotic animals and wildlife. That lab also tests milk and dairy products for quality, chemistry and food safety.

Lassen County cattle rancher Jack Hanson, who chairs the CAHFS advisory board, said his biggest concern is reappearance in the state of foot-and-mouth disease, which could have a “devastating effect on animal agriculture if we do not have a system in place to detect it quickly and respond to it quickly.”

“I think the most important aspect of the laboratory is that it’s on the ground, ready to go,” he said. “It gives us all a certain peace of mind just knowing that it’s there.”

Tulare County dairy farmer Jeff Wilbur has been using the Tulare lab for more than 20 years, often working with his veterinarian to diagnose or confirm any health issues in his herd.

“I think dairy producers and veterinarians should be encouraged to use (the labs’) services more,” he said. “I think they’re reasonably priced with good turnaround.”

With so many ongoing issues confronting agriculture, Daley acknowledged that farmers may not regularly think about emerging animal diseases.

“That doesn’t mean it’s not a very important issue,” he said. “The ability to detect an emerging disease or to deal with a disease issue quickly is so critical to our ability to market and our ability to stay in productive business mode.”

As an egg producer, Tom Silva, vice president of J.S. West Milling Co. in Stanislaus County, said he routinely sends samples to the Turlock lab at least every couple of weeks. He said even though the lab does a great job, the facility itself is in need of an upgrade, a process already started under former CAHFS director Breitmeyer.

“That’s the big push now,” he said.

An upgrade would make it a full-service lab that could handle not just birds but other livestock, Silva said. Such a lab would benefit the region’s dairies, which currently have to make trips to Davis or to Tulare, he noted.

Permission for use is granted by the California Farm Bureau Federation. Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at