Blog Post

Spotlight on: Animal health risk assessment

Increased global trade and migration, higher population densities, and climate change all affect the nature of risks associated with animal diseases and human health. The pace of these changes, the growing interconnectedness of so many risks and consequences, and the potential impact of mitigation strategies make the process of assessing and managing risks increasingly complex.

To better understand these evolving 21st century challenges, the Council of Canadian Academies brought together a group of 12 eminent experts to discuss how Canada can remain at the forefront of animal health risk assessment practices, thereby protecting the health of animals, people, the environment and the economy.

The Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, on behalf of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) asked the Council of Canadian Academies to assemble an expert panel to address the following question: What is the state and comprehensiveness of risk assessment techniques in animal health science, specifically pertaining to risks that may impact on human health?

The Panel examined risk assessments conducted by the CFIA, the Public Health Agency of Canada, as well as other organizations. It also conducted surveys to examine knowledge capacity in Canada. Lastly, the Panel heard expert testimony from representatives with government, industry and academia.

The subsequent report, Healthy Animals, Healthy Canada, released publicly on September 22, 2011, provides evidence-based information to support CFIA and other risk assessment organizations as they consider future policies and practices related to risk assessment.

“The well-being of animals and humans and the environment in which we live are linked in many ways,” said Dr. Alastair Cribb, Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Calgary and Chair of the Expert Panel. “These links have become very apparent over the last decade as countries around the world have experienced, for example, SARS, BSE and H1N1. After examining the evidence, the Panel determined that although animal health risk assessment in Canada is built on a solid foundation of knowledge and expertise, risk assessment practices can be enhanced by taking a more integrated approach.”

After examining the available evidence, the Council’s Expert Panel concluded that animal health risk assessment can add increased value for decision-making when an Integrated Multidimensional Approach is used.

Integrated refers to the consideration of a wide range of consequences, specifically those that address animal health, human health and the environment. Currently, risk assessment practices only examine the likelihood of a risk occurring and how serious the direct consequences are. Therefore a Multidimensional approach refers to moving beyond the recognition of the signs and hazards of a potential animal health event, to considering a full range of direct (e.g. trade losses) and indirect consequences (e.g. economic impacts on local communities), and towards fully documenting and assessing management decisions for the future.

The Panel also found that in order for Canada to stay at the forefront of animal health risk assessment, there are numerous activities that can be improved, such as: strengthening expertise and knowledge capacity; considering a broader range of consequences related to an animal health event; improving communication among risk assessors, managers and stakeholders; enhancing the transparency of the decision-making process; and setting aside resources for foresight assessments.