Foot and mouth disease in the United States: Assessing the threat; The epidemic is slowing in Europe, but the United States still needs to take precautions, experts say.

Foot and mouth disease in the United States: Assessing the threat;
The epidemic is slowing in Europe, but the United States still needs to take precautions, experts say.

May 12, 2001 Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN) by Joy Powell
Though the chance of foot-and-mouth disease coming to Minnesota is lessening as British outbreaks dwindle, farmers and travelers must continue to take precautions to prevent the virus from entering the United States, state veterinarian Tom Hagerty said.

The British government's claim that the foot-and-mouth epidemic is under control was confirmed by an independent scientific study released Friday.

While the pace of the infection is slowing, just one foot-and-mouth infection anywhere in the United States could stop exports of U.S. beef, pork, lamb and veal for at least six months, said Mike Schommer of the Minnesota Agriculture Department.

"If we weren't able to export our meat products because of foot-and-mouth outbreaks, the only option for the meat normally exported would be to sell it on the domestic market," Schommer said. "Having that excess meat on the market would depress prices."

The British government said the disease has peaked, with a majority of the nation's livestock remaining healthy. A handful of new foot-and-mouth cases are being reported daily in Britain, down from about 60 cases reported daily two months ago, Hagerty said.

On Friday, only eight new cases had been confirmed since Thursday by Britain's agriculture ministry. That brings the number of British farms where livestock were diagnosed with the infection to 1,583. Animals on most of those farms have been slaughtered.

The disease, which severely sickens cows, pigs and sheep, hasn't been diagnosed in the United States since 1929. "The risk isn't gone, but it's certainly low," said Hagerty of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health.

Any level of risk must be taken seriously, according to Hagerty and officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

At the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport this week, agriculture officials disinfected the shoes of people who checked off a box on a customs form indicating they had been on a farm or around livestock in countries with foot-and-mouth disease.

Scope of economic risk

Brian Buhr, a livestock economics professor at the University of Minnesota, said Americans must be vigilant in preventing the disease, because a sustained ban on U.S. exports would have a much greater impact worldwide than the disruption of livestock imports from the United Kingdom.

"If it broke in the U.S., that would have a huge effect on world trade," he said. "We're one of the largest exporters of beef and pork products."

Last year, the United States slaughtered about 36 million cattle, 98 million hogs and 3.4 million sheep and lambs, he said.

By comparison, beef production in the United Kingdom was 5 percent of what U.S. beef production was last year, he said.

If the United Kingdom stopped all agricultural production, it wouldn't have much effect on the worldwide economy, Buhr said.

But if a U.S. outbreak couldn't be quickly contained, there could be macroeconomic effects on the nation's trade balances and interest rates, he said.

If U.S. beef and pork production were heavily crippled, Buhr said, consumers would likely substitute poultry.

If that scenario played out, Minnesota would be in a strong position. Last year, Minnesota was the top turkey producer in the country, with 43.5 million turkeys raised, he said.

Lessons from Britain

At least 3,000 farms in the United Kingdom have lost a total of more than 2.6 million head of cattle, pigs and sheep. They were in herds diagnosed with the disease, or were on farms within a two-mile "firebreak" ring around farms that had infected livestock.

Britain's experience with the outbreak suggests what could happen if the disease spread to American livestock.

If the virus were carried into the United States by a traveler or in illegally imported meat, it could sweep through the millions of cattle and swine that are fattened for market at feedlots in Nebraska and Kansas and in the southwest, veterinarians said. The same could happen in Iowa, the nation's top producer of pork and home of many huge corporate hog farms.

Several veterinarians interviewed recently in England said foot-and-mouth spread so quickly throughout Britain because of the close proximity of small- to medium-sized farms.

Also, many sheep had been sold across the United Kingdom before anyone knew the animals were infected, said Dale Neirby of Faribault, Minn., who was in Gloucester, a hot spot for the disease. Neirby was one of about 60 U.S. veterinarians who went to England to help fight the disease.

The airborne virus causes fevers and blisters on the mouths and feet of cloven-hoofed animals. The animals stop eating and become lame.

What about tourism?

In Minnesota and Britain, agriculture and tourism are key industries.

Since March, British farmers, tourism and hospitality businesses have lost billions of dollars because of the disease. When farmers and those in the tourism industries earn less money, they have less to spend on other services, such as plumbers, accountants and electricians. This ripple effect has threatened thousands of jobs in regions where the disease was concentrated.

John Edman, director of the Minnesota Office of Tourism, said the disease could potentially hit farm and tourism industries here just as hard.

"It would impact the perception of people making a decision to come to our state, and that in turn can decrease the number of actual travelers that follow through," hesaid.

Minnesota's tourism generates an estimated $8.3 billion annually, he said. "It's a major contributor to the engine of economic growth in the state of Minnesota," Edman said.

Being careful

The agriculture and food industry is the second largest employer in Minnesota and provides one in five jobs, said the state Agriculture Department's Schommer. "Every agricultural production job helps create an additional three jobs in all economic sectors," he said.

To protect their economic investments, Hagerty said, Minnesota's farmers should remain careful about who they let in their barns and should make sure visitors' footwear and clothing are clean.

U.S. agriculture officials continue to restrict the import of used farm machinery from countries where foot-and-mouth has been diagnosed.

Some international moving companies also are taking precautions.

Dick Bailey of Lightwater in Surrey County, England, is moving to Greensboro, N.C., in July. Bailey said he and his wife will follow the directions of their mover, Allied Pickford of London, to separately pack shoes, garden hoses, rakes, shovels, bicycles and other items that have touched British soil.

The movers will disinfect those items before they are used in America, Bailey said in a recent interview in London.

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