By Aimee Nielson

Picture an army of University of Kentucky scientists, lab technicians, veterinarians, inspectors, and specialists standing guard, protecting Kentuckians and their livestock from diseases, ready to sound the alarm and spring to quick action if something threatens the livestock or equine industry—even our pets or ourselves. They make sure milk, fertilizer, feed, and seed distributors follow state regulations and product labels are accurate. These are jobs the protectors in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment take seriously, and for good reason.

Petry dish with seedling sample

Protecting Farmers and Consumers
The Division of Regulatory Services is responsible for administering four state laws that regulate feed, fertilizer, seed, and raw milk marketing as well as offering seed and soil testing.

“We analyze more than 3,000 feed, 2,500 fertilizer, and 2,000 seed samples per year,” said Darrell Johnson, division director. “Feed, fertilizer, and seed businesses have to register with us and send us their labels for approval. We work hard to prevent any false or misleading information on labels. We’ve also seen an increasing number of pet food samples, close to 40% of what we test.”

Johnson sends eight feed inspectors to businesses to pull feed, fertilizer, and seed samples. They bring the samples to the lab and analyze them to make sure they match what the label says.

The thought of inspection and regulation is enough to make anyone nervous, but Jeff Pendleton at Hallway Feeds in Lexington sees it as a blessing and something that brings assurance and understanding for Hallway and its customers.

“Knowing that our Hallway Feeds facility and products are in compliance provides tremendous confidence and assurance to our customers,” said Pendleton, Hallway’s general manager. “Regulatory Services is crucial in maintaining a level playing field for feed manufacturers and retailers. They provide important oversight to help ensure safe feeds for livestock and companion animals.”

Hallway Feeds is the only family owned and operated feed company dedicated to the horse industry. Pendleton said it is challenging to keep up with new and changing feed laws, but having Regulatory Services to interpret all of that has been valuable.

“Regulatory Services has gone well beyond expectations educating the industry about new laws, new methods, and just helping us get through what could have been a very disruptive learning curve,” Pendleton said.

Display of a variety of commercial seed bags

Information is Vital

Regulatory Services goes well beyond feed in how they protect consumers. They are also working directly with the people who pick up milk at dairy farms.

“Farmers are paid on weight and butterfat,” Johnson said. “Our dairy inspector works with raw milk handlers to make sure farmers are being paid correctly for their milk.”

Their skill at analyzing soil samples — they evaluated more than 40,000 last year — allows Regulatory Services to provide extension agents the information they need to make fertilizer recommendations based on precise soil needs. Johnson, a farmer himself, knows how important it is to have all the information possible when trying to run a business in a volatile industry like livestock production.

“As a farmer, I know you spend a lot of money on agriculture inputs,” he said. “Even if you’re just a cow farmer like me, you spend a lot of money on feed, fertilizer, and seed. It is satisfying to me that our department is here doing this work. Even when they don’t realize it, we are trying to make sure farmers and other consumers get what they pay for and that the product they buy is safe.”

Conceptual image of a laptop with the web site on the screen

The consumer site at is organized into four sections: pets, livestock, gardening, and seeds. The site helps explain what the lab does and helps pet owners and livestock producers read labels on their food and treat packages. Consumers can learn how to report a food incident and even get information about starting their own pet food/treat business. The site also links to current pet food/treat recalls, pet food comparisons, and other informative topics.

Image of seedlings sprouting

Protect the Animals, Protect the Food Supply

The University of Kentucky Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory and the Murray State University Breathitt Laboratory are the only entities in the state that can confirm zoonotic diseases — infectious diseases that can spread from animals to humans. VDL director Dr. Craig Carter said that work is important for many reasons, and he feels the weight of their responsibility heavily because animal health impacts food security and human health.

“We are part of a nationwide network of more than 40 labs, the National Animal Health Laboratory Network.” Carter said. “That network is valuable when you think about how quickly impactful diseases can spread. During the highly pathogenic avian flu outbreak in 2014, the network got its first big test. The flu started on the West Coast and moved east and millions of birds were dying or had to be killed to prevent disease spread. At the end of the day it stopped at Kentucky’s border. Our partner labs were communicating symptoms, statistics, and more.”

The network is a cooperative effort between the American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians and two federal agencies within the U.S. Department of Agriculture: the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“This network is very cooperative,” Carter said. “The network enables labs to test for diseases that pose serious threats to animal health, such as avian influenza epidemics, foot-and-mouth disease, classical swine fever, African Swine Fever, and many others.”

Carter said the network is a vital early warning system for emerging disease and foreign animal disease, diseases that can be accidentally or deliberately introduced to the United States from abroad. Without an early warning system, foot-and-mouth disease could easily cost U.S. agriculture more than $125 billion in decreased revenues for corn and soybeans and more than 150,000 lost jobs over the course of an outbreak.

“Being able to quickly identify disease, warn of its presence, and stop the spread is a very important part of ensuring a safe, stable, and nutritious food supply in the United States,” Carter said. “As part of the larger network, we’ve helped establish a framework for animal health monitoring that provides critical information sharing and an emergency response system that can protect animal agriculture.”

“Being able to quickly identify disease, warn of its presence and stop the spread is a very important part of ensuring a safe, stable and nutritious food supply in the United States”

– Director Dr. Craig Carter
Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory

Protecting Human Health
The early detection of animal diseases can also help protect human health. For example, avian influenza virus has the potential for mutating into a strain that can infect people.

As the extension ruminant veterinarian, Dr. Michelle Arnold sees herself as a decoder, a translator, and communicator between the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory and veterinarians across Kentucky. She teaches classes for UK undergraduates, writes articles for trade publications, and fields various phone calls throughout the day regarding animal health.

“I also talk regularly with our Cooperative Extension agents,” Arnold said. “They let me know what they are seeing in the field, and sometimes that lets us know what is about to happen.”

At one time, there was no plan, no network of labs, or anyone who would protect the population from disease.

“It could just wipe us out, including the food supply,” Carter said. “Now we have 59 labs across the United States. By keeping a watchful eye on animal disease in Kentucky and elsewhere in the United States, we can also increase consumer confidence in animal agriculture and ensure positive relationships with our global trading partners.”

Training the Next Generation
Even though UK doesn’t have a veterinary school, the university has a long-standing partnership with Auburn University, where many UK pre-veterinary alumni go to pursue their doctor of veterinary medicine degree. A new partnership is closer to home at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee.

The primary goal of the UK-LMU partnership is to train top veterinary students to become leading research scientists in veterinary medicine and animal health. Students spend a four-week rotation at the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory and some have gone on to pursue specializations in pathology, parasitology, immunology, and many other veterinary science paths.

“With many of these students staying in the area to practice after they graduate, we are really training our next generation of VDL clients,” Carter said.

Joint Mission
The Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory and the Division of Regulatory Services are tangible examples of ways the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment fulfills its commitment to the land-grant mission. Combining teaching, research, and education, both services protect Kentuckians’ health and pocketbooks. ◆