Maurice Pitesky is an assistant specialist in cooperative extension at UC Davis who also teaches about the poultry industry in California. As a veterinarian and epidemiologist, he is interested in how diseases spread through flocks of chickens from the perspectives of poultry health and food safety. Prior to working at the university, Pitesky worked with the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the California State Senate and the Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
What is your current research on?
The first thing is I do a lot of mapping of disease. So I use a technique called GIS, Global Information Systems, and what we try to do in our group is understand how avian diseases move in space and time. If we understand how they’ve moved in California over the last 10 or 20 years, we can hopefully come to some kind of understanding of how these diseases are moving in and out of avian populations and come up with mitigations to reduce their spread in the next 10 or 20 years.
Avian influenza can be spread [in] different types of ways, and one of the ways that we’re interested in is natural spread from waterfowl, because waterfowl are natural carriers of avian influenza, and we’re worried about where those waterfowl spatially interact with domestic poultry or commercial poultry. So we can make maps of diseases, we can map where the waterfowl are, where domestic/commercial poultry are, and we can look for where those overlay each other and come up with a risk map of where in the state we might have higher risk of a natural introduction of avian influenza and focus our surveillance efforts toward those areas.
Another thing that we do, we’re interested in that elusive term of sustainability. There’s a lot of push for local food and for growing our poultry and eggs in much more open environments. We’re really interested in those systems because there’s a lot of challenges with respect to food safety, welfare, behavior and the sustainability of those systems.
Why do you think this research is important?
On the mapping side it’s important because we want to reduce disease in poultry. We want to improve the health of our poultry in California, and the mapping allows us to understand how animals are getting sick in space and time and if there’s clustering of disease. I think in agriculture we’re just starting to scratch the surface of what we can do with mapping and understanding how disease[s] move and identifying what are the factors that are contributing to diseases spreading from flock to flock.
On the food safety side, salmonella is a huge issue with respect to poultry and understanding the factors that are contributing to people getting sick and birds carrying salmonella is essential. If you don’t understand what those factors are you can’t come up with mitigations in order to reduce the risk of salmonella.
On the sustainability side, understanding these small scale pasture poultry operations, understanding what the challenges are in working with those farmers is essential for making those systems sustainable and viable from a commercial perspective and from a food safety and welfare perspective. We need to engage with those farmers, we need to have a facility at UC Davis where we’re really having all kinds of research and outreach that’s dedicated to those type of small scale pasture poultry farmers, and to backyard enthusiast and master gardeners, and all the people throughout the state now that are really embracing poultry.
What is the most interesting aspect of your research?
I think the part that I like the most is how often I’m wrong. It’s always neat when you come up with some general hypothesis about how you think an experiment will work or how you think some results will look like and I’m constantly amazed how often I’m wrong when I look at the results. That’s the great thing about science, you can look at data, and if you look at it objectively it can give you an answer that maybe you weren’t expecting, and it’s always interesting to follow those answers and try to identify what the meaning of that is and how that can be helpful from a food safety perspective or to the poultry industry. On the applied part of it, it’s really nice to have a real impact, hopefully, on how successful some of these farms are. It’s fun to get that feeling of gratification if you’re able to work with some of the farmers and producers.
Photo courtesy Maurice Pitesky