When purchasing meat from the local grocery store, consumers don’t think twice about the health of the animals before they were butchered. Most people think that the USDA and other state and local agencies involved in the meat industry ensure that our food supply is 100% free from disease. This is largely true, as meat cannot be sold to the public without state and federal inspections of carcasses.
There is a missing link, one that doesn’t necessarily put the public in danger but does speak the the ethical dilemma that producers face, one that speaks to animal health and quality of life.
Recently I purchased sheep from a breeder in Northern Ohio. We spoke several times over the phone over the course of several weeks and I inquired about the health of the animals for sale and the overall health history of his flock. Herd health is very important to me– we are growing our flock with the goal of creating a closed, disease-free flock. I purchased 4 ewes from the breeder. As I left his farm, I observed an animal with an abscess on her jaw. When I got them home to the farm, I quarantined them and promptly made arrangements to test them for CL (Caseous lymphadenitis), OPP, and Johnes. All four tested negative to all 3 conditions, and they were promptly removed from quarantine and introduced to the flock.
Of all the conditions small ruminants may contract, CL is of particular concern. CL is endemic in commercial goat and sheep herds. It is difficult to eradicate from a farm once it is present. It is a bacterial infection that causes abscesses (either internal or external), which may result in the condemnation of the animal when it is processed. )USDA regulations prevent animals with obvious signs of diseases from being processed for human consumption.) While there is a myriad of reasons why sheep develop abscesses, CL is the most likely culprit. Most disturbingly, there is strong evidence that indicates that CL is a zoonotic bacteria– humans have been known to become infected, and the treatment is both expensive and painful. CL positive animals should be euthanized in my opinion, but that feeling is not universally shared.
A conversation with a local vet spoke to how diseases such as CL become so common: many producers simply accept them as a part of doing business. Although CL causes abscesses that are both debilitating to the animal and causes the meat to be condemned, most commercial livestock producers don’t purchase disease free stock when starting their herd. They don’t vaccinate their animals against viruses that are already present on their farm, further spreading it to the non-infected animals. And lastly, most do not test for the presence of the viruses or diseases. Many animal diseases allow animals to remain outwardly free from symptoms while they quietly spread disease around the farm. Such farmers are simply passing those silent but debilitating viruses and diseases to someone else. When a conscientious farmer finally realizes he/she has a problem, it is often financially debilitating and labor intensive to eliminate it.
We at Tarheelbilly Farm test our breeding stock for Johnes, CL, CAE, and OPP and maintain breeding stock that is 100% disease free. We fully intend to extend this disease free status to our future cattle herd. Although we are small producers, we deeply believe that if everyone did their part to help eliminate diseases from their farm, all livestock producers (and the animals!) will benefit. When you buy from our farm, rest assured that the breeding stock and meat that you eat is disease free and humanely raised.