Wednesday, March 31, 2021

All hands on deck: Changing roles around COVID Response

This past year brought challenges for everyone, and while it remains to be seen how COVID-19 and its impacts will continue to affect us, many have found themselves taking on new responsibilities. This was definitely true for the WSDA Rapid Response & Emergency Management Program, where the Washington Food/Feed Rapid Response Team (RRT) resides. 

In any year other than 2020-21, the Rapid Response Team earns its keep by coordinating multi-jurisdictional food and animal feed outbreak responses. For example, in the 2018-19 budget period, the team coordinated responses to nine separate incidents including E.coli illnesses associated with raw milk, detections of listeria and salmonella in raw pet food, and severe winter weather impacts on dairy cattle in central Washington. 

A 2019 training event led by
the Rapid Response Team.

In 2020, the Rapid Response Team assisted in coordinating with its food safety partners on 17 incident responses ranging from Listeria in canned fish, campylobacter illnesses associated with undercooked chicken liver, and assisting with tracing efforts on a national leafy green outbreak. These are all typical for our team, but after 2020, we can add infectious disease response to the running list of the program’s capabilities.

Although routine response work continued, we all had to adapt in 2020 to the needs brought on by the global pandemic, and Washington RRT was no different. 

One of the great opportunities of having a food/feed Rapid Response Team as part of WSDA’s Emergency Management Program is that each side brings its own extensive network of subject matter experts.

These networks overlapped in many ways when tasked with solving, or helping others solve, the various challenges that came with sharing COVID-19 public health guidance, obtaining and distributing personal protective equipment, tracking federal guidance and requirements, and educating and advising others on the state’s vaccine roll-out plan. 

For example, the same emergency managers we typically work with on radiation emergency preparedness or Incident Command System training became involved last year in helping with the statewide COVID-19 response. Despite different roles, we all knew how to reach each other and tap into one another’s resource network to share best practices, learn what had already been done, and coordinate our efforts. 

Knowing who to contact in food safety programs of other states through the national Rapid Response Team network helped expedite COVID-19 guidance for the food processing industry. Having all of these networks already established sped the agency’s public health response.

The Rapid Response Team was also able to help provide more tangible solutions, such as assisting the WSDA Food Safety Program purchase handheld radios so food safety inspectors could continue important inspections and investigations while maintaining social distance measures and following current statewide requirements.

Washington National Guard
helping at a food pantry.
Additionally, the program represents WSDA during all statewide responses where agricultural and natural resources are impacted.  We call this Emergency Support Function 11, or ESF 11, and we’ve been activated for over 13 months through the State Emergency Operations Center.  Add this ESF-11 piece to the program and you get a well-rounded balance of in the trenches work and big-picture coordination. 

The past year gave us the opportunity to work closely with others in the agency to coordinate National Guard placement in food banks, assist with face covering and hand sanitizer distribution to farm workers and food processors, and share expertise in food safety and quality considerations related to stockpiled food to supplement the state’s hunger relief network. 

The work needed to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak illustrated that programs with rapid response teams can not only be boots on the ground, but also effective at coordinating the flow of information and act as key facilitators for an effective public health response.

COVID-19 brought challenges, suffering, and heartache to many, but it provided the opportunity to identify what worked well in our response, and what could be improved. 

While COVID-19 changed a lot of things, the networks of dedicated public health and emergency management professionals continued to work effectively. The interlacing prompted by the challenges of this last year have only made these networks stronger.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Think twice before giving bunnies or chicks as gifts

Dr. Susan Kerr
WSDA Animal Health Program

Although it may be tempting to gift a small child with a fuzzy baby rabbit or chick on a glorious spring day or as an Easter gift in a basket, giving such animals as gifts should only be done after careful consideration for the health of the children and the well-being of the animal.

Rabbits and poultry carry a significant health risk for children and many new owners find themselves unprepared for the reality of raising a rabbit, hen, or rooster.

It is common for a child to nuzzle or even kiss a baby chick. However, poultry can carry Salmonella bacteria on or in their bodies, and some types of this bacteria can make people very ill.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported an increase in salmonella cases associated with the increase in backyard poultry raising in response to COVID-19 pandemic food security issues.

Proper handwashing will go a long way to keeping yourself and your child safe, but small children are notoriously lax about handwashing; they put things in their mouths, have close contact with the ground, and sometimes interact very closely with animals. All these actions put children at greater risk of Salmonellosis, which can cause severe diarrhea, vomiting, dehydration, and serious complications.

Another concern about gifting a chick is what becomes of the chick as it grows. Will you be prepared for a laying hen that can live 10 or more years, or a rooster who will let the neighborhood know when it is 5 a.m.?

Dumping birds somewhere after a child has lost interest is illegal, unethical, and cruel.

The same concern holds true for rabbits, also often given as a gift.

Once interest in the bunny wanes, many rabbits are dumped in parks or other remote areas. This is a tragedy on two fronts. First, freed domestic rabbits are not prepared for life in the wild and usually succumb to starvation or predators. Second, surviving rabbits wreak havoc on ecosystems by competing with native rabbit species, destroying desirable plants, and reproducing at alarming rates.

To make matters worse, in recent years a serious rabbit disease has been spreading more widely in the Washington and the U.S. – Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease, or RHD. This virus is highly contagious among the European rabbits most commonly sold, and releasing them into the wild increases the risk of the disease spreading into native wild rabbits.

If, despite your best efforts and intentions, you are no longer able to care for any type of pet, it should be taken to an appropriate animal shelter and never set loose in the wild.

Bringing an animal of any kind into a household is a serious decision. Considerations include how to feed, house, and care for the animal for the duration of its life - which can be years – in order to keep both people and pets safe

If you are not prepared for such a commitment, consider sticking to a stuffed animal—there is no feeding or waste to worry about, and you can always throw them in the washer!

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Mailing products temporarily allowed for Cottage Food operations

Hector Castro
Communications 

If you are thinking of getting into the cottage food business, but are worried about selling direct to customers, it might help to know that a temporary suspension of that policy remains in effect.

Normally, cottage food operations in Washington are required to sell direct to the consumer, and prohibited from shipping their food products. But as with so many other person-to-person interactions, the COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult for cottage food operations to sell in this manner.

In late 2020, WSDA adopted the new policy, "Delivery of Cottage Foods products during the State of Emergency," to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus while still allowing market access for cottage food businesses.

Mailing cottage food products still has some requirements. The product must be packaged to prevent contamination while it’s in transit, and the cottage food operation must continue to meet record-keeping requirements required by state regulations.

Washington has nearly 400 permitted cottage food operations statewide covering about 30 counties. King County has the most, with about 100 permitted cottage food operations. Spokane County has 20 permitted cottage food operations.

WSDA continues to accept new Cottage Food permit applications. The permitting process requires an inspector to visit the location where the food will be prepared, but those inspections are currently being done remotely when possible.

Visit agr.wa.gov/cottagefood for more information on current policies and the WSDA Cottage Food program. 

Monday, February 1, 2021

More than hornets – WSDA trapping continues legacy of protecting agriculture and the environment

Karla Salp
Communications

While millions of people only became aware of the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s work last year thanks to the “murder hornets,” the Asian giant hornet program is just the newest in a long history of work that the WSDA Pest Program has engaged in to protect the state from harmful invasive pests. For decades, the Pest Program, with cooperation and participation from the public, has protected the quality of life for all Washingtonians by ensuring that crops and our environment remain free from new invasive pests.

Gypsy moth

Male Asian gypsy moth stuck on trap
Male Asian gypsy moth trapped near
Silver Lake in Cowlitz County
Since trapping started in 1974, gypsy moth has been WSDA’s longest-running and most successful pest program. Despite new introductions of European gypsy moths each year from where it is established in the Eastern U.S. and occasional introductions of Asian gypsy moths through the ports, there are still no established populations of gypsy moth in Washington. The success of the program is owed not only to the dedication of state entomologists over several decades, but also because of excellent tools that have been developed to detect and control gypsy moths when they try to establish in an area.

In 2020, over 20,000 gypsy moth traps were placed throughout the state. WSDA trappers caught only nine gypsy moths, but unluckily the last moth caught was found to be an Asian gypsy moth. Asian gypsy moths are worse than their European cousins because they eat a wider range of host materials (including evergreen trees) and the females can fly, allowing them to spread more easily.

Owing to their destructive nature and potential to spread easily, the federal standard recommendation is to treat for even one Asian gypsy moth. Therefore, WSDA has proposed to treat the area near Silver Lake in Cowlitz County where the Asian gypsy moth was detected.

How you can help: You can help by not disturbing gypsy moth traps that WSDA hangs throughout the state each summer and by allowing our traps on your property when necessary. This ensures a proper detection grid so no gypsy moths slip in undetected. If eradication is proposed in your area, learn all about it at agr.wa.gov/gypsymoth and help educate your neighbors. 

Japanese beetle

Japanese beetle on roses
Japanese beetles have a fondness for roses, 
but they can decimate hundreds of plant species
Japanese beetles are invasive pests that are already established in many eastern states. The adults eat many types of plants but have a particular fondness for roses. The larvae (aka grubs) like to overwinter in lawns.

WSDA issued a pest alert last fall after Japanese beetle was found in a surprising location – Grandview. While Japanese beetle has been trapped and detected at airports for years (where they sometimes hitch rides on planes) it was unusual to detect the pest so far from an airport. WSDA will be conducting intensive trapping in the area in 2021 and conducting outreach in the area to notify residents and encourage reporting of Japanese beetle sightings.

How you can help: Learn how to identify Japanese beetle and report it to WSDA's Pest Program at pestprogram@agr.wa.gov or to the Washington Invasive Species Council

Forest pest survey – no news is good news

One of the project
s the Pest Program conducts is a forest pest survey, looking for certain pests of agricultural concern that are not yet known to be in the state. This year the program looked for several pests, including such pests as summer fruit tortrix, oak splendour beetle, and spotted lanternfly. Thankfully, none of the pests were detected this year.

Woman hanging trap in large fruit tree
Sapp Dickerson hanging trap and lure in host tree.

How you can help: If you see an unusual plant, insect, or other animal that you think might be invasive, snap a photo and report it to the Washington Invasive Species Council.

Apple maggot

yellow apple with dark, uneven lines in the skin
Apple maggot tunneling through apple
Apple maggot is a pest that is a serious threat to Washington’s apple industry. The pest was first found in Western Washington in the 1980s and rapidly spread throughout the I-5 corridor. Luckily, much of Washington’s main apple-growing regions remain pest free.

WSDA conducts trapping in pest-free areas as well as in apple maggot quarantine areas that have commercial orchards. When our trappers detect apple maggot adults or larvae, they alert the county pest boards and the boards take action to address the issue. This collaborative approach has prevented apple maggots from ever having been detected in Washington grown commercial apples.

An unusual number of apple maggots were detected in Okanogan County in 2020, in part due to a new approach the program took to collect host fruit (including fruit from hawthorn bushes) in areas where adult apple maggot flies were trapped. The season netted a total of 471 apple maggot adult flies and 385 larvae/pupae (from collected fruit) in Okanogan County. Members of the Apple Maggot Working Group – which includes WSDA, apple industry representatives, county pest boards, and university researchers – are currently reviewing the trapping results and are considering a recommendation to quarantine all or part of the remaining pest-free area of Okanogan County.

How you can help: Leave your apples at home if you live in the quarantine area. Learn about the apple maggot quarantine, which prohibits the movement of homegrown fruit from quarantined areas (including all of Western Washington and some areas in Eastern Washington) into the pest-free areas of Washington. 

Last but not least - Asian giant hornets

2020 was the first year that we monitored for Asian giant hornets, after confirming the first detection in the country in December 2019. We had to rapidly develop plans for trapping, tracking, and eradication in the spring in collaboration with the U.S Department of Agriculture. 

Asian giant hornets garnered national attention when they were dubbed "murder hornets" by the media in May of 2020. Suddenly, the eyes of the world were on our staff and our work. But the notoriety also had a benefit - millions of people were educated about Asian giant hornets and thousands stepped up to help by either reporting suspected sightings or placing traps on their property and submitting their catches for 17 weeks or more. 

Thanks to the combined efforts of WSDA and citizen scientist trapping, we were able to trap, tag, and track an Asian giant hornet back to its nest last October - finding and eradicating the first-ever Asian giant hornet nest in the United States. Of the 31 specimens that were reported or trapped, half were detected by the public. We literally could not have done it without you. 

WSDA's pest program recently released a video summarizing the program's work in 2020 and is currently meeting with national and international partners to plan trapping for 2021. While the plans are still in development, we do know that citizen scientist trapping and reporting will continue to play a significant role in the work to prevent Asian giant hornets from establishing in the U.S. 


How you can help: Continue to report suspected Asian giant hornet sightings in Washington state using our online reporting form or by emailing hornets@agr.wa.gov or calling 1-800-443-6684. If you live in Washington - especially Whatcom, Skagit, Island, or San Juan counties - consider participating in citizen scientist trapping starting in July. You can also join our Asian Giant Hornet Watch Facebook Group to stay up-to-date on Asian giant hornet happenings in the Pacific Northwest.

Our work continues - together 

WSDA’s Pest Program monitors for over 130 pests each year, and that list only continues to grow with the addition of new invasive pests such as the Asian giant hornet. The work is always a collaborative effort between WSDA and the community. While we set and monitor traps, the public plays an important role in reporting new suspected pests, allowing traps to be placed on their property, and in some cases responding to pest detections. This collaboration between state and local organizations and private citizens has helped to keep pests in check in the state for decades, which protects not only our crops but the environment and even human health.