- Brian Chilson
- LINDA MEOLA
The state veterinary lab of the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission, which offers a wide variety of services to the state, such as testing chickens for avian influenza, cattle for brucellosis, pigs for diarrhea, various pet diseases and more, has had in the past five years or so three directors, three deputy directors and three lab directors.
That turnover led to lax record-keeping, according to Commission Director Preston Scroggin and interim lab director Linda Meola, and slowed the laboratory's action to conform to accreditation requirements imposed by the American Association of Veterinarian Laboratory Diagnosticians after a 2012 site visit.
The result: The lab was informed by the AAVLD Feb. 26 that its accreditation, earned in 2010, has been withdrawn.
But accreditation by the AAVLD is voluntary, rather than required, so the work of the lab is unchanged, both Scroggin and Meola emphasized. However, Meola said, it's important to the lab that it be accredited, and work is ongoing to meet the AAVLD requirements.
The lab has not lost its membership in the National Animal Health Lab Network, which handles large-scale disease outbreaks, and so can run avian influenza and other testing for NAHLN. However, without its AAVLD accreditation, the lab must submit extra paperwork to the NAHLN and will receive a site visit from NAHLN.
Meola, a veterinary pathologist who trained at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., has been interim laboratory director since Nov. 1.
"We're not the only ride that's fallen off the track," Meola said of the AAVLD accreditation. Thirty-four states are accredited by the AAVLD; some state labs do not seek accreditation at all. Still, the lab wants to be accredited because "it ensures that a benchmark level of excellence is met," Meola said. The lab will also be eligible for grant money once it regains accreditation, and Meola anticipates accreditation may be required in the future and wants the lab to be ready for it.
Because AAVLD seeks to improve lab performance and changes its own requirements over time to reflect that, there will always be nonconforming issues found during a site visit, Meola said. What happened at the state lab was that corrections required by AAVLD were not timely: The lab was given a year to implement changes and did not meet its deadline. That delay was caused by "turnover in key positions" and a loss of continuity in responses to the accrediting agency, Meola said.
In its 2012 audit report, the AAVLD found numerous nonconformances, from an organizational chart that did not include all key personnel, control system documents that weren't always current or available, purchasing records that did not meet AAVLD standards, poor record keeping, a lack of documentation of personnel competence, and other nonconformances.
Meola said the quality system documentation for purchasing has been updated and brought into compliance, though the lab is still working to bring the invoicing into compliance. Quality systems software has also been purchased. The organizational chart has been updated to include all key personnel and reflect internal staffing hierarchy. She said 75 percent of the examples of poor record keeping have been brought into compliance, as have about half the quality systems documents.
The accrediting agency also expressed concern about low pay for the veterinarians, "especially for board certification," and recommended the state "work on raising professional salaries to market level."
The agency's noncompetitive salaries make it hard for the lab to recruit the most highly qualified personnel, Meola said, in particular the supervisory job in the microbiology department. The laboratory has had high employee turnover for the past nine years, a stumbling block to implementing quality controls in the lab, Meola said.
Meola is doing double duty as lab director and pathologist. Also doing double duty is Kay Shuttleworth, who is both quality manager and acting supervisor in the microbiology lab. There are four vacancies total in the lab right now, for a director, a virologist and two administrative analysts.
One of the primary concerns of the Livestock and Poultry Commission is seeing that the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus, a disease fatal to piglets that has killed 5 million pigs nationwide since last spring, does not come to Arkansas, Director Scroggin said.
"I feel like for a change we're on top of it," Scroggin said. He said Arkansas is fortunate in that most of its hog operations are isolated and most are for growing out pigs, rather than farrowing, or producing, piglets.
"Show stock is our biggest concern right now," Scroggin said. "What we put into place about two months ago, any swine who come in have to be certified by a veterinarian that it came from a herd that is PEDV-free for at least 60 days." Scroggin said the commission has about 30 field agents, and they go to every fair where pigs are shown in the state.
Scroggin said he expects the agency will get back in touch with the AAVLD within the next six months.
He said there are some issues that the agencies need to come to "consensus on." Saying the AAVLD had at one time said the lab needed a bigger parking lot but withdrew that issue, Scroggin said, "You can always have a dream list." He added that he plans to "stay more and more involved."