Doing her part to help feed the world – safely

Some people may look at a drift of pigs and see pork chops and bacon. Lisa Rochette, D.V.M., M.P.H.’15, sees creatures that help feed the world and bolster the economy. 

“They produce a fair amount of meat compared to what you feed them,” she says. “The world’s population and food needs are going to need all kinds of sources of protein, and swine contribute to that.” 

As the assistant director of the swine health team in the Aquaculture, Swine, Equine and Poultry Health Center within the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services, Veterinary Services (APHIS VS) in Raleigh, NC, Rochette works to ensure the pork component of the world’s food supply is safe and secure. She oversees policy development and implementation for a host of swine health programs, including disease preparedness and response activities. 

In her work, Rochette meets with a wide variety of swine industry stakeholders, from government entities to producer representatives to researchers. That mix, she says, means that dealing with conflicting priorities is a “daily occurrence.” She uses her negotiating skills as a middle child to resolve those issues. 

“I see the government’s role as trying to do the most good for the most people,” she says. “We try to bring everyone together to be on the same page.” 

That can be challenging in, for example, defining when a disease affecting pigs should be considered “emerging.” Public health authorities may raise concerns about issues they see and attribute them to swine production practices, which could alarm consumers and have negative consequences for the industry. 

“Our goal is to apply science to support what we do to help producers safely feed the public while protecting their animals from emerging diseases.” 

Lisa Rochette, D.V.M., M.P.H.’15

“It might be that environmental changes or regulatory changes have had untoward effects that have contributed to the emergence of these issues, rather than strictly production practices,” Rochette says. “How can we come to a common place where we can agree? No one wants to eat or rear pigs that are contaminated or for pigs to be unsafe or unhappy. Our goal is to apply science to support what we do to help producers safely feed the public while protecting their animals from emerging diseases.” 

Rochette grew up in a community that produces pigs. She raised her own and worked on swine farms during the summer. As an animal science major at North Carolina State University, she got into its Food Animal Scholars Program, which gives participants admission to the university’s College of Veterinary Medicine. She maintains ties with NC State by leading a College of Veterinary Medicine course in regulatory medicine. She also mentors students. 

“When I was a student, a lot of people put their time in me. I’m thrilled to pay that forward,” she says. 

Rochette pursued a master of public health degree at DMU because she says she “believed it would set me up with a skill set that would open some doors for me, and it did…I always want to be on the steep part of the learning curve and want to always be learning.” 

She focused her capstone project on the Reston virus, one of six known viruses of the genus Ebolavirus. Although the Reston virus is not known to cause disease in humans, it is hazardous to monkeys and pigs. She worked on her capstone soon after the Ebola virus, which can be lethal to humans, had killed thousands and was declared a worldwide epidemic. 

“Ebola Reston is not the same disease as Ebola, but it’s related. At the time, Ebola cases in Texas and other states were causing a public panic,” she says. “My capstone was to build an emergency response plan to anticipate a disease outbreak like that – to identify whether it’s found in food animals, address questions from the swine industry and questions from the human health side. That experience relates to the work I do here.” 

One can’t help but relate her capstone experience to the current pandemic. 

“COVID has influenced my perspective on my job, and my job has influenced my perspective on COVID,” she says. “A course I took at DMU gave an overview of the human health system. Many of its challenges relate to human behavior, and I learned a lot about human behavior and sociology during this pandemic. 

“There are not enough staff in the world to babysit people’s behavior,” she adds. “You need more than a stick to motivate people. With COVID, the carrot has been elusive. How do you deliver the message convincingly enough to achieve compliance? It’s important to make good, sound decisions early and anticipate the best you can the events that will occur downstream.” 

Rochette and her colleagues are currently keeping an eye on cases of African swine fever, which has spread in Asia and Europe and recently was found to have “jumped the pond” to the Dominican Republic. She praises her team members for their skills in translating “regulatory jargon,” working with federal and state government entities and communicating effectively with the swine industry to work toward the goals of feeding the world and keeping animals safe. 

“When you find that common ground, it’s very rewarding,” she says. “I appreciate the creativity involved, and I really like when I’m able to problem-solve.” 

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