A nationwide network of veterinary toxicology laboratories, each with similar testing capabilities and an efficient communication
system, could become one of the best weapons to help ward off another major pet-food crisis, even helping protect the human
food supply against a serious poisoning outbreak.
'NAHLN Tox' mission statement
That's the key argument a work group within the American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians (AAVLD) makes
in a white paper proposing such a network and the federal funds needed to support it.
As much as that network is needed, though, alert local veterinarians will continue to be part of the nation's first line of
defense against any future toxicology emergency just as they are now, says Dr. Stephen B. Hooser, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ABVT, head
of the toxicology section and assistant director of the Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory at Purdue University.
The laboratory network envisioned by Hooser and other members of the AAVLD work group he chaired would operate within the
National Animal Health Laboratory Network (NAHLN), a chain of 58 state and university laboratories set up in 2002 in cooperation
with U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies to protect against the spread of infectious animal diseases.
The network, called "NAHLN Tox" in the white paper, would operate much like the Food Emergency Response Network (FERN) laboratory
system, which also works within NAHLN but focuses on food issues. NAHLN Tox would deal with animal-health issues, and would
be able to expand the capacity of FERN if needed, Hooser says.
The white paper proposes additional federal funding to expand the scope of NAHLN beyond infectious diseases to include toxins.
DVM Newsmagazine asked Hooser several questions on this and related proposals in the AAVLD white paper. Here are his responses:
Q: Isn't the NAHLN already prepared to watch for toxic agents entering the animal food supply?
A: Many individual state veterinary diagnostic laboratories and other NAHLN laboratories do have the capacity to test for many
toxins and do so on a regular basis in their own states. But their analytical capabilities, equipment and personnel vary widely.
The reporting requirements for a diagnosis of an animal poisoning also vary between different states. Unlike infectious diseases,
for which there are very specific reportable diseases, most toxicants, in most states, do not have reporting requirements
(other than those on the USDA/HHS Select List).
In addition, there is no formal network among these labs to exchange information or to notify other labs of their toxicological
findings. It is a monumental task to get the different information systems of each lab to communicate with each other. As
it stands, the NAHLN system is geared toward infectious diseases. Incorporating toxicants into the communication system would
require additional efforts.
Q: How much funding would be needed to accomplish this, and exactly how would the money be used?
A: As a very rough estimate, it would require about $6 million in one-time funds for equipment and expendable supplies and about
$6 million in recurring funds for personnel and supplies to bring a number of the existing laboratories up to the same level
so that they could have the personnel and equipment to develop and validate chemical analyses of toxicants of interest, perform
analytical testing and then communicate those results to other NAHLN members. Those toxicology funds would be in addition
to the current needs of NAHLN.
Q: The white paper mentions seven laboratories for which funding would be sought initially. Which labs are they, and why were
A: To be able to produce the white paper and circulate it in a timely manner, we needed to write it in a short period — before
it was possible to conduct a survey of current capabilities and needs. To roughly calculate the monies it might take to fund
the toxicology component of NAHLN, it was expedient to make the estimation based on the amounts it would take to fund about
seven analytical toxicology laboratories. It was not determined in advance which those might be. Given sufficient resources,
I hope it might be possible for the funds to be split and portions disbursed to more than seven laboratories.