Safeguarding Public Health Starts with Healthy (and Happy) California Cows

Richard BreitmeyerGrowing up on his family’s egg-producing poultry farm in Orange County, Dr. Richard Breitmeyer, the director of the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory (CAHFS) since November 2010, has always been connected to California agriculture. And during his 26-year tenure at the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), where he served most of his career as the State Veterinarian, he became acutely involved with the dairy industry. Specifically, he advised USDA during the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the United Kingdom and again following first detection of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or mad cow disease) in 2002; and helped establish quality assurance programs in food safety for the poultry and dairy industries.

Breitmeyer earned his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree in 1980 and his Master of Preventive Veterinary Medicine degree in 1990, both from UC Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine, which today is home to the CAHFS. This laboratory system is a partnership between the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) and the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Its mission is to provide veterinarians and livestock and poultry producers throughout the state with rapid, reliable diagnoses of animal diseases. The system operates labs in Tulare, Turlock and San Bernardino, as well as at UC Davis.

“Returning to UC Davis to assume leadership of the laboratory system is an honor,” says Dr. Breitmeyer. “We are fortunate to have such highly trained faculty and staff at CAHFS. They play a critical role in protecting California and the nation from some of the most serious threats to animal and human health.”

For example, the lab has a prominent role in conducting surveillance for BSE. It was CAHFS that identified the euthanized afflicted dairy cow during targeted testing in April 2012. “I was the third person to find out and had a responsibility to assure all protocols and reporting were followed, which was the first step in a process that allowed officials at CDFA and USDA to assure the American public that there never was any risk to the food supply,” says Breitmeyer.

“The California dairy industry has a very good record of accomplishment,” he points out. “However, there are opportunities to improve the efficiency of the food safety and animal health systems, as well as the industry’s ability to respond in the event of a crisis.”

Working with CDRF

“Our relationship with the California Dairy Research Foundation (CDRF) includes learning about member needs and concerns regarding safety and security and identifying how we can help,” Breitmeyer says. “The CDRF currently funds a ‘dairy fellow’ training program at CAHFS. This person gets trained to be an expert in bovine health and dairy foods safety. The fellow learns the significance of diagnostic testing, all spectrums of the regulatory environment, including how to interact with government offices, and how to be an effective spokesperson on dairy industry safety.” The CAHFS just graduated its first fellow and now a new vet practitioner is in the program.

“We recognize that anything that jeopardizes the safety, and thus the reputation of the California dairy industry, would be an economic disaster, which is why CDRF proudly funds this CAHFS fellowship, as well as other programs at the lab,” says Dr. Gonca Pasin, executive director at CDRF.

Breitmeyer adds, “This focus on dairy as part of a public service program is unique to California. We give credit to CDRF for having the vision to recognize the value in dairy-specific training.”

CDRF is also funding CAHFS’s efforts to provide a more rapid and reliable methodology for isolating the sources of contamination during emergency responses. The ability to rapidly and efficiently collect and analyze hundreds of bulk tank milk samples from large geographic regions in California to quickly determine the presence or absence of disease will assist in keeping the milk supply chain operating from unaffected farms and will provide a powerful marketing tool for the dairy industry to assure the public and their buyers of the safety of their product. The earlier the industry can detect high-risk pathogens, chemicals and agro-terrorisms threats, the quicker we can control and eradicate them, explains Breitmeyer.

“We are here to serve the Californian dairy industry,” Breitmeyer adds. “This is why we work very closely with CDRF.”

He provides this example. “When CDRF board members expressed interest in an improved diagnostic test for bovine tuberculosis, we reached out to our faculty at CAHFS, as well as other experts at UC Davis and outlined a project to develop a new test, that if successful, would identify high-risk animals in a reduced amount of time,” he says. “We will continue to try our best to meet the needs of California dairy farmers.”

This profile was written by Donna Berry, a food scientist and editor in the dairy and food industries. She will contribute monthly “Check Off Dollars in Action” columns to the CDRF website, which will highlight CDRF-supported research efforts and programs and the innovative individuals behind them. To contact her, visit