Global Food

Management and Analysis of Big Data for Near Real-time Detection and Early Response to Food Animal Health Threats

Some devastating livestock viruses can be carried as far as six miles through the air, making biocontainment a primary challenge for hog and poultry operations. To help shore up these industries' defenses against such diseases, researchers at the University of Minnesota have joined forces with a Minnesota pig growing operation and a local manufacturer of a unique animal health product to determine whether electrostatic particle ionization can reduce the spread of airborne viruses among farms.

"Diseases transmitted through the air are some of the most difficult diseases to contain," says Montserrat Torremorell, an expert in animal health and infectious diseases at the College of Veterinary Medicine and lead investigator on the project. "The technology we are testing is already being used in swine and poultry operations, and we know that it helps to increase production, improve animal health, and increase feed efficiency, but we don't know whether it also reduces the quantity of viruses in the air and whether it can also be used for biocontainment and biosecurity applications. That's what we are going to find out."


Widespread disease outbreaks in the pork and poultry industries can pose major threats to the global food supply. Some of the most devastating diseases affecting these industries are airborne viruses, such as porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED), and swine and avian influenzas. Losses from PRRS alone are estimated to cost the U.S. swine industry nearly $900 million each year.

The study, Validation and deployment of biosecurity technologies and intervention strategies for food and agriculture systems, is one of 17 research projects in the area of Global Food Ventures, which has received $3 million in funding from Minnesota's Discovery Research and InnoVation Economy (MnDRIVE). MnDrive is an $18 million annual investment by the state of Minnesota. In addition to Global Food Ventures, MnDRIVE's research areas are: Advancing Industry, Conserving Our Environment; Discoveries and Treatments for Brain Conditions; and Robotics, Sensors and Advanced Manufacturing.

Global Food Ventures projects bring research, agriculture, and industry together to develop holistic approaches to ensuring a safe and sustainable food system.

Torremorell's project has two main components. First, the research will test technology available from Baumgartner Environics in Olivia, Minn., that emits ions into the air to electrically charge floating particles to see if it can reduce viral loads as well.

"Whatever is airborne supposedly clumps together and settles on surfaces," says Torremorell. "We have already tested the technology in isolation units at the college, and the data looks very promising. Now we are measuring it under field conditions on a multi-facility pig growing operation."

Other University of Minnesota researchers involved in the study are Dr. Peter Davies, veterinary epidemiologist; Larry Jacobson, agricultural engineer; Thomas Kuehn, mechanical engineer; Shaun Kennedy, with the Food Systems Institute LLC; and Dr. Peter Raynor, a public health expert in the areas of environmental health and infectious disease.

The research team is collecting hundreds of samples from the test farms and checking them for PRRS, PED, and influenza. By June, the team hopes to know how effective the technology is in reducing airborne viruses.

Torremorell's team is also investigating technologies used in other industries that potentially could be applied in food animal medicine to help stop the spread of airborne viruses. Once the team identifies a promising technology, the researchers will evaluate it for cost effectiveness and efficacy.

The College of Veterinary Medicine is ideally positioned to lead this project because of its experience in aerobiology and biosecurity, its industry contacts, and its ability to conduct the tests quickly. "Together the College of Veterinary Medicine, the School of Public Health, and the departments of mechanical and agricultural engineering at the University have a lot of expertise to offer the industry," says Torremorell.

Despite ongoing efforts directed at predicting the emergence of zoonotic diseases, public health and veterinary scientists cannot reliably predict the emergence of new viral strains or when they will occur, thus efforts also need to focus on developing and validating new technologies to prevent transmission of viral agents between animals and from animals to people.

"As an industry we are vulnerable to new diseases," Torremorell says. "If diseases like foot and mouth or hog cholera were to come into the United States, we would need technologies to help us contain them. We need to validate under field conditions disease-preparedness technologies."