A vast, countrywide network of related businesses mean cheap animal products for consumers and ease in transporting those animals and products to where they're needed. The system is proven and streamlined. Americans rely on its strength.

But disease can make even the strongest man feeble, particularly when he enables its success. The analogy is apt because the very things that make the U.S. livestock industry work so well could also mean disaster if foot-and-mouth (or a like disease) were ever to reach these shores.

Last seen in America in 1929, foot-and-mouth has ravaged the livestock industry in the United Kingdom. There, the latest numbers show 1,788 confirmed outbreaks of foot-and-mouth. Animals — thus far 2.76 million sheep, 128,000 pigs, and 537,000 cattle — on more than 7,000 farms have been killed.

Financial consequences

A recent report authored by American Farm Bureau Federation economist Travis Justice says if foot-and-mouth ever found its way into Arkansas, the state could sustain as much as $1 billion in losses. There are between 1.5 million and 2 million head of cattle in the state. Worth $100 million, the state also has 685,000 hogs and pigs. If foot-and-mouth ever reached the country, those animals would be banned from leaving state borders. No other livestock would be allowed in either.

Any instance of foot-and-mouth would result in a quarantine area 6 miles around the outbreak site. Inside that area, livestock would likely be culled and buried.

“There is a state plan in place about how to deal with a disease outbreak in livestock (see accompanying story). Almost every state has such a plan,” says Dianne Hellwig, an Arkansas Extension veterinary specialist.

So did Britain. But those plans — including lab tests needed to confirm cases before drastic action — went out the window when foot-and-mouth sprinted across the country. Knowing the disease was running rampant, lab tests were eschewed in favor of eyeballing the herds. If animals exhibited any foot-and-mouth symptoms, they were killed.

Foot-and-mouth

Some animals are more resistant to foot-and-mouth than others. The problem with the disease is that it doesn't wipe out the population. Animals will recover clinically, but the disease destroys their ability to be good production animals. They won't gain weight, they'll have difficulty reproducing, and they're consistently weak.

“The animals won't function in a herd well, and it's a losing proposition money-wise for farmers. A virus produces the disease and there are several strains of it. That's why vaccination is difficult.”

The foot-and-mouth virus is extremely hardy. Although killed by disinfectants pretty easily, “it'll live in soils, in feces, garbage, all kinds of things. It will contaminate pastures, lodging facilities… on and on. It's a nightmare,” says Hellwig.

Terrorists are surely paying attention to what's happened in the U.K. There are fears a malcontent could introduce a disease into U.S. animals. How easy would it really be?

“An outbreak of foot-and-mouth is a legitimate worry — whether due to terrorist action or not. It can easily be carried on clothes, shoes, whatever,” says Hellwig.

At airports, border officials are inspecting people and their belongings, but the precautions are, at best, porous.

“About a month ago, I was in Scotland on a farm in an area without foot-and-mouth. But when I came back to the United States, they asked if I'd been on a farm. I said, ‘Yes, but there was no outbreak where I was.’ That was it, they let me through,” says Hellwig.

It would be easy for someone to drive straight from a U.S. airport to a feedlot and loose some virulent and economically debilitating disease.

“I'm not suggesting border officials should pat folks down or give you the third-degree, but it would be easy to walk into this country with a vial of some nasty disease. It wouldn't be easy to get an animal or animal products in here, but I can envision someone bringing disease in with a vial.”

In the U.K., livestock expositions and transportation of livestock have been curtailed. Meanwhile, U.S. fairs and expos are ongoing. Hellwig says that's cause for concern.

“There's going to be more vigilant bio-security in place now, but foot-and-mouth is so simple to spread. People walk through fairs, touching animals. Disease could spread across a fairground in no time.”

Major livestock expositions should be guarded more closely, says Hellwig. There's one coming up in Louisville, Ky., in November. A major dairy expo will soon take place in Wisconsin.

“The swine producers have actually cancelled their international pork expo this year. They were concerned about these disease issues.

“These are gatherings where people from all over the world come. It would be incredibly difficult to monitor such meetings. I don't want to scare people from going, but if I'm picking a likely avenue for some outbreak to occur in, that's it.”

Another consideration is feeding swill to hogs. It's suspected that improperly cooked food scraps at least contributed to, if not directly caused, the foot-and-mouth epidemic in Britain.

Here, there are swill-making operations similar to those in the U.K. This is one method for not only transmitting foot-and-mouth, but also hog cholera (which has also been eradicated from this country).

Small farmers feed garbage and food scraps to their animals. By law, however, they must cook garbage thoroughly to rid it of disease, says Hellwig.

Cooking is also required in the U.K. But the people suspected of spreading the disease through swill had been cited several times for not abiding by the cooking laws.

“Swill isn't as big a deal here as overseas because we've gone the more corporate route for hog farming. This probably wouldn't happen in any of the major pork producers' operations. Where it could happen here is on the smaller farms,” says Hellwig.

Being vigilant

Bio-security is of paramount importance, say veterinarians Delta Farm Press has spoken to. No easy access to animals by strangers should be granted, they say.

Who is coming on your farm? Where were they last? What were they wearing? Did they disinfect their boots? Are any new animals brought on the farm being isolated?

“Actually, isolating new animals is a great idea. But the truth is, in the case of foot-and-mouth it does little good because the disease is so contagious. Most farmers don't get worried about any of these questions. But nowadays it would certainly be prudent to do so,” says Hellwig.


e-mail: david_bennett@intertec.com