Fifteen years ago, on Dec. 23, the BSE nightmare known as “the cow that stole Christmas” began. The financial hit the beef industry incurred due to loss of confidence in food safety and loss of export markets was felt for years.
It is truly difficult to estimate how many billions of dollars this scare cost us. It took almost 10 years before the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) granted the U.S. a “negligible risk” status. Countries that did allow us to export to them placed some tight restrictions on those exports. Other countries that had developed a national animal traceability system were only too happy to fill the void our loss of exports left.
While the BSE experience was devastating, it would pale in comparison to what would happen if the U.S. were hit with a foreign animal disease such as foot-and-mouth disease. FMD is a highly contagious viral disease that infects cloven-hoofed animals. It is not a human health or food safety issue, and, while it is a low-mortality disease, it does result in significant production losses.
We often use FMD as a model for livestock disaster because from a disease perspective, it is the worst-case scenario that the U.S. could experience. The fact that it is contagious to cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, deer, etc., heightens the threat, because all of those protein sources would be affected — as opposed to beef alone, as in the BSE case. Since the U.S. is FMD-free, we are afforded great export opportunities that much of the rest of the world does not enjoy.
The last case of FMD in the United States occurred in 1929, and the plan for dealing with FMD, if the U.S. were ever to be infected again, was developed shortly after that case and includes depopulation of infected premises. Our livestock industry has changed somewhat since 1929.
Feedyards, for example, have tens of thousands (if not 100,000 or more) of animals on one site, and there are more cattle being transported across the U.S. each day to supply those feedyards than were ever imagined in 1929. Feedyard depopulation in a timely manner would be very difficult on operations of this size, and our weak livestock traceability system would not allow us to track where cattle originated or follow their course to the feedyard efficiently.
Thankfully, producers, scientists and veterinarians have worked together to develop the Secure Beef Supply plan which still includes the prospect of depopulation, but also includes the possibilities of vaccination and harvest to stop the spread of disease.
However, these options also present their own logistical issues. In order to use vaccination, the following must occur:
• Quarantine of infected premises.
• Identification of the strain of FMD vaccine needed.
• Use of the small supply of vaccine North America has in reserve, and more vaccine to be manufactured.
• Vaccination of all cattle (twice).
• Premises kept quarantined for the time it takes to harvest all the cattle.
• Barrier system set up to transfer feed, fuel and other supplies from the “clean” side of the quarantine area to the “contaminated” side of the quarantine area.
• Decontamination system set up for the workers who will continue to care for these cattle (How long will these workers continue to work?).
• Identification of packer who would be willing to harvest the cattle.
• System developed to transport cattle to the packing plant for harvest without spreading the disease.
• Decontamination of the packing plant after the infected cattle are harvested.
This is not an all-inclusive list, but it does recognize several major hurdles. There isn’t an easy answer for this situation.
However, a more robust traceability system would greatly enhance the ability to track livestock movement, prevent the spread of disease and allow us to return more quickly to an FMD-free status.
Most likely, if the U.S. were to be infected with FMD, a livestock traceability system would be required by our trade partners if we are to re-access those lost export markets.
The U.S. is the most agriculturally advanced country in the world. But when it comes to something as potentially devastating as an FMD outbreak would be, our methods to manage it are weak and outdated. We need to develop a strong traceability system that is fair to all producers.
Sjeklocha is a technical services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.