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U.S. fends off foot-and-mouth;
Confronted by nightmarish visions from nations battling livestock disease,
the United States goes on high alert to protect its valuable resources

April 1, 2001 The Kansas City Star by Eric Palmer
Ranchers, farmers and agriculture officials from Maine to California nervously watch the news from Britain and imagine the smell of burning carcasses as farmers there battle foot-and-mouth disease.

So far those scenes have not been repeated here. And U.S. agriculture officials insist the steps taken thus far will prevent an outbreak in the United States.

They take comfort in an inspection shield that officially has kept foot-and-mouth out of this country since 1929.

Still, if the virus sneaks into the United States on the clothes of a traveler, in a sausage tucked in a suitcase or in the hold of a ship, agriculture officials have prepared a military-style campaign to contain and eradicate it.

On Friday, the same day that tests on hogs from a North Carolina packing plant came back negative, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a summary of the plan. It calls for slaughtering infected animals and authorizes the use of military personnel to restrict travel in a six-mile buffer zone around a disease site.

The possible consequences of an outbreak justify an agricultural blitzkrieg. The virus could cost U.S. agriculture billions of dollars, crushing its $5 billion-a-year meat export market and depressing the cost of hams and steaks when those would-be exports stay in the domestic market.

An outbreak might cut off tourism and damage the restaurant industry.

It could infect wildlife such as deer and elk, closing parks and wildlife areas. Britain's experience demonstrates that even though foot-and-mouth does not make humans sick, the ageless virus has the power to bring a nation to its knees.

The effect of eradicating the disease, one of the most easily spread in the world, would hit in ways most Americans have not imagined.

"Hunting could be stopped. Animals in zoos could be wiped out," said John Locke, director of an independent beef producers group. "We have got to be more proactive to make sure we don't get it."

Foot-and-mouth will inevitably arrive if the United States does not ban all meat and cattle imports and disinfect all international travelers, Kansas feedlot operator Mike Callicrate said. The United States has temporarily banned imports from the European Union and Argentina and is disinfecting travelers only from potentially affected areas.

"They say we have a fire wall up, but what they need to say is we have a picket fence that you could drive a truck through." said Callicrate, of St. Francis, Kan.

Dan Glickman, an agriculture secretary for President Bill Clinton, says the Agriculture Department has done a good job with the resources it has. About 100 suspected cases of foot-and-mouth are investigated every year. But he thinks Congress needs to allot more money to seal the country's perimeters.

"This is a national security issue, and it should be dealt with like that," Glickman said. "When you consider the number of people traveling abroad and all of the goods coming through the borders, and you look at the number of people trying to protect our borders, there is kind of a disconnect."

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said the USDA was adding inspectors and training more beagles to sniff out food in travelers' luggage.

"We recognize the need to review our resources and to have the resources in place to keep it out and contain and eradicate it," Veneman said. Facing consequences

Beth Lautner of the National Pork Producers Council says that she has confidence in the U.S. system but that she is still worried.

"The challenge is you are counting on a whole host of people, producers and other countries, to do the right thing every day, day in and day out," Lautner said. "The U.K. showed what happens when just one person or a few people make a big mistake."

Britain has traced the outbreak to a farmer who fed his hogs restaurant scraps from infected meat that slipped into England. Within weeks the disease had spread to Ireland, France and Denmark.

By Saturday, Britain had confirmed 846 cases of foot-and-mouth and had destroyed nearly a half-million animals. An additional 250,000 have been earmarked for slaughter.

Keith Collins, chief economist for the secretary of agriculture, has been using those figures to estimate what an outbreak would cost the U.S. meat industry. So far Britain has destroyed about 1 percent of its beef cattle, 0.7 percent of its hogs and 1.5 percent of its sheep.

In the United States that would translate into about $1 billion in beef and hogs, Collins said. The disease would shut down the country's $5 billion meat-export market until the United States was disease-free.

Billions more would be lost in depressed meat prices. The effect would ripple to grain farmers, cattle feeders, transport companies, grocers, restaurants, banks, retailers and others.

Collins has been taken aback by Britain's inability to end the epidemic.

"Part of our concern is that even with everything they are doing, they don't seem to be able to get control of it," Collins said. "It is hard for me to think of anything quite as threatening to agriculture as this in my professional memory."

Although the virus has not jumped the Atlantic, the economic consequences have hit home.

The disease has quashed the travel plans of some tourists, who are finding parts of the countrysides of England and Ireland off-limits. A temporary ban on Denmark's pork has pushed up prices for the baby-back ribs many restaurants use. A shortage of hides from Europe is pushing up the price of fine leather used in car seats, clothing and furniture.

Rod Anderson, president of the Hereford House and other restaurants, returned from a Caribbean vacation last week. He was impressed with U.S. efforts to tighten its borders. But he said he worried that the "ick factor" alone could hurt the restaurant industry if the disease were to hit.

"Fortunately, foot-and-mouth doesn't affect people [common misconception--BSE Coordinator], but a lot of people don't know that," Anderson said. "Consumer confidence would be impacted." The plan

The plan the USDA outlined Friday has been developed over several years by an organization of federal officials, state and private veterinarians, and producer groups.

If there were a confirmed outbreak, a farm or a ranch would be quarantined, and a six-mile buffer zone would be created. Animals in that zone might be "depopulated."

"If you don't get ahead of the disease, you are just chasing it," said the National Pork Producers Council's Lautner, who was a part of the group that developed the plan.

The Army and the National Guard could be called in to stop the movement of vehicles or animals in the infected areas. Officials also would try to track down animals, people or vehicles that had been inside the zone.

Although U.S. farms are not as tightly packed as in Britain, our efficient transportation system can move animals far and fast.

"I know we can move a load of cattle from Florida to a Kansas feedlot in 14 hours, and the same truck might go on to Canada," said George Teagarden, Kansas livestock commissioner. "In a day or two, it could be spread quite a ways."

Animals within a zone might be vaccinated. Infected animals that are vaccinated would shed less virus.

Vaccination is contentious because vaccinated animals might not be sick but still could not be exported. Tests cannot distinguish a sick animal from a vaccinated one.

Many officials believe that issue would be moot. They say that if the disease ever takes hold here, other countries will stop importing until the country can be certified disease-free, which could take a year.

That point emphasizes the reason a high alert has sprung up here in the face of the outbreaks in Europe. The gruesome pictures of dead cattle with legs in the air being doused with gasoline and set ablaze have given the United States time to watch, learn and prepare.

"The disastrous consequences of an outbreak are incalculable," said James Marsden, a scientist at Kansas State University. "The price we pay to have this infrastructure in place is nothing compared to the downside of this getting out of control."

Number of livestock In millions

U.S. KS MO

Cattle 97.3 6.7 4.25

Hogs 59.85 1.57 2.9

Sheep 6.92 .11 .07

Kansas accounts for 12.4 percent of U.S. farm revenue from cattle because of many feedlots.

Missouri accounts for 2.4 percent of the revenue. Possible economic impact of disease

Britain has slaughtered about 1 percent of its beef cattle, sheep and hogs. In the United States, slaughtering 1 percent of beef cattle and hogs would be a $1 billion loss.

The United States' $5 billion export meat business would be sacrificed.

Domestic meat prices would probably fall, creating a loss for producers. Consumer demand might also fall, creating pressure on meat prices and affecting restaurant and grocery sales. Foot-and-mouth facts

A GLOBAL DISEASE

Considered the most contagious disease in the world, foot-and-mouth is widespread in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and South America. Scientists identify seven main varieties of the virus.

HOW IT SPREADS

The virus can be spread by anything it touches, from sandwich meat to the soles of shoes and truck tires; wind can carry it. Hay imported from China may have been a factor in outbreaks in Korea and Japan. British officials suggest an illegal meat shipment from Asia got into the swill fed to pigs at Heddon-on-the-Wall.

IMPACT OF DISEASE

Though harmless to humans [common misconception--BSE Coordinator], the virus affects cloven-hoofed farm animals and can wreck a country's livestock export trade. Vaccination can stem the disease, but this route shuts down a country's meat industry for months because it is difficult to distinguish inoculated animals from those carrying the virus.

SLOW RECOVERY

Poor nations that do notexport meat let it run its course, and most animals will recover over time.

WIDESPREAD IN BRITAIN

The first case in Britain was confirmed Feb. 20 in pigs in a slaughterhouse in northern England. Since then, nearly a half-million head of livestock have been killed in a so-far unsuccessful attempt to stamp out the disease.

LIVESTOCK ILLNESSES: KEEPING THEM STRAIGHT

Foot-and-mouth is not the only disease affecting animals in the news lately. Two flocks of sheep in Vermont were seized recently because the U.S. Department of Agriculture fears they might have had mad cow disease. They were taken to Ames, Iowa, slaughtered and tested. Those results are not back yet.

Mad cow disease has never been detected in the United States. Unlike foot-and-mouth, mad cow can infect humans. In Europe, nearly 100 persons have died from the disease's human variant.

VISITS TO THE ZOO

Zoos in San Diego, Tampa and Calgary, Canada, are asking people who have visited countries with foot-and-mouth disease to stay away from exhibits that offer direct or close contact with animals.

Attractions such as petting zoos, camel rides and photo safaris are vulnerable to contamination, said Jane Ballentine, spokeswoman for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.

The Kansas City Zoo has changed none of its policies so far.

"Our current thought is we'll watch as it progresses," said spokeswoman Denise Rendina.

SWILL STILL HERE

Kansas and Missouri each have one hog producer licensed to feed swill - cooked food scraps - which authorities say is the source of the foot-and-mouth outbreak in Great Britain.

Kansas has one hog producer that feeds swill obtained from Fort Riley, said George Teagarden, livestock commissioner for the Kansas Animal Health Department. One producer in southwest Missouri also is licensed, said John Hunt, state veterinarian.


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