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Is the U.S. cattle business at risk for FMD?

Getty Images/Scott Olson Cattle auction
While robust procedures are in place to prevent foot-and-mouth disease from entering the U.S., one veterinarian thinks it’s just a matter of time.

In Andrew Clark’s mind, it’s only a matter of time.

He’s talking about foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) and whether or not the U.S. will experience an outbreak. Based on the years he spent as a veterinarian in southern Africa, he thinks it will happen. “If we look at what is a threat to us, at some point, we’re going to have foot-and-mouth disease,” he told members of the International Livestock Identification Association (ILIA) during the group’s recent conference in Bend, Ore.

ILIA is comprised of brand inspectors and law enforcement officials in U.S. states, Canadian provinces and Native American Tribal Nations where livestock brand recording, livestock ID and inspection are recognized by legislation. I was honored to be invited to speak to the group again this year on how BEEF readers view animal ID and traceability.

I’ll discuss ID and traceability in a later blog. For now, let’s consider FMD.

READ: BEEF readers split on animal ID

After Clark got up-close with FMD over the 10 years he spent in Africa, he returned to the U.S., eventually retiring as the state veterinarian for Oregon. If anybody understands FMD and the threat it poses, as well as on-the-ground knowledge of how the U.S. animal disease system operates, it’s Clark.

While FMD is not a human health concern, the implications to the U.S. cattle business are legion. “A single case of foot-and-mouth disease stops all (livestock) movement for a minimum of 6 months until it’s completely proven there’s no more disease in the population,” he told ILIA members. “So think of the economic implications to our livestock industries.” Not only will it stop all cattle movement within the U.S., it will stop all beef exports.

However, in southern Africa, where FMD is endemic, exports still happen. That’s due to a combination of fences and vaccination. Should FMD strike here, we can’t build fences fast enough to contain animal movement, particularly susceptible wildlife like feral hogs. But we can vaccinate.

In the aftermath of the FMD outbreak in the United Kingdom, I participated in a number of exercises designed to test our ability to handle an outbreak here. Then, the policy in the U.S. was “stamping out,” or killing all animals within a containment zone to stop spread of the disease.

Considering the number of cattle on feed in the Southern Plains and the speed with which the disease can potentially spread, I doubt there’s enough backhoes and bulldozers (an ironic name) available to dig a trench deep enough, wide enough and long enough to handle the aftermath. Nor is there enough money to pay all the indemnities.

And lest you think that openly discussing the threat of FMD could lead to a bioterrorist attack, let me assure you that terrorists of all stripes are aware of that potential, and have been for many, many years. That’s why we need to remain ever-vigilant.

READ: Do you really write down suspicious truck tags?

Recently, Clark says, the thinking has turned toward vaccination to control and eventually eliminate the disease, should it arrive on our shores. That’s why you’ve been hearing chatter lately about the need for a viable FMD vaccination bank.

And that’s why the latest version of the Farm Bill, now ready to be considered by House-Senate conferees, is good news to the animal health community. Earlier versions of the Farm Bill contained provisions for a one-time infusion of $150 million to develop the vaccine bank. The latest version expands that to $150 million per year for five years.

Whether or not that survives conference committee negotiations remains to be seen. But it’s encouraging to know that some on Capitol Hill are aware of the threat and its implications and have stepped up to help the beef business be prepared.

Currently, the systems we have in place are effective in keeping FMD at bay. If Clark is correct, however, the U.S. needs to up its game significantly to be ready. There are many, many aspects to the Farm Bill and provisions for a FMD vaccine bank are only a small part. But the need is great.


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