State of the State: State and federal officials have prevention plans for foot-and-mouth

Jun 1, 2001

Aaron Chambers
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

The Illinois Department of Agriculture has it all worked out: First, slaughter all exposed cattle, pigs and sheep within a three-mile radius, then quarantine another seven miles beyond that.

Foot-and-mouth disease hasn't made it to Illinois, or to the United States for that matter, but state and federal officials are nonetheless braced for the worst. They've taken steps to prevent the disease from spreading to this country. And they've prepared detailed response plans should it arrive.

There's good reason. "A situation such as what's in England would not only be disastrous for the farmers, it would be disastrous for the whole economy," says Larry Quandt, president of the Illinois Farmers Union.

Foot-and-mouth hit England in February and quickly spread throughout that country. Some 2.8 million animals have since been slaughtered, then burned or buried, in an effort to stamp out the disease. Cases also have been confirmed in France, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland and Argentina.

Clearly, the slaughter program hurt Great Britain's farmers and agricultural industry. But the outbreak also crushed Britain's tourism industry, as people seem reluctant to vacation in an infected country. By one estimate, foot-and-mouth has cost the pubs and beer industry $54.5 million a month. 

"The FMD outbreak in the UK has already cost more than $10 billion and costs are escalating daily," the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service wrote in a report to Illinois officials. "If the U.S. were to face a severe outbreak of FMD, the costs of eradication and losses to the livestock industry would total billions of dollars."

The ag inspection service estimates a foot-and-mouth outbreak in this country could cost the nation's economy as much as $4 billion. And Doane's Agricultural Report, a respected industry newsletter, put that figure at up to $10 billion.

States and the federal government, however, have taken measures to head off an outbreak. They had plans in place for dealing with animal diseases from overseas, but they've tightened those standards because of the highly contagious nature of foot-and-mouth.

The feds are prohibiting imports of live swine and pork products from all European Union member states, for example. Ruminants, including cattle and their products, already were prohibited because of the risk associated with mad cow disease.

The feds also have beefed up dog teams and added inspectors at airports, including Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, in an effort to prevent prohibited agricultural products that could carry foot-and-mouth from being smuggled into the country. At O'Hare, customs officials also are disinfecting the shoes of travelers who indicate they have visited the British countryside.

And the U.S. inspection service is working with the military to disinfect military vehicles and equipment coming back to the United States from infected countries.

"Animals in this country are highly susceptible to FMD," the inspection service states in a fact sheet on the disease. "They have not developed immunity to it because FMD has not occurred here since 1929 and because U.S. veterinarians do not vaccinate against it. If an outbreak were to occur in the United States, this disease could spread rapidly to all sections of the country by routine livestock movements unless detected early and eradicated immediately."

Meanwhile, this state's prevention efforts are focused on educating veterinarians and farmers to recognize the disease and encouraging them to promptly notify state or federal officials. The state Department of Agriculture also has asked overseas travelers to countries with confirmed cases of foot-and-mouth to wait 10 days before visiting an Illinois farm.

"Some of the other foreign animal diseases are very species specific," says Mike Williams, chief policy adviser at the state agriculture department. "If it came into a farm, you'd quarantine that farm. You generally control it on that farm. As long as you didn't have other livestock come into contact with those livestock, you had it controlled. But this disease crosses species, crosses boundaries and is airborne. It makes it a little bit tougher disease to handle."

Foot-and-mouth, which infects cattle, swine and other cloven-hooved animals, is a severe viral disease. Infected animals can survive, but they're left debilitated.

This infection, which is distinct from mad cow disease, is characterized by fever, blister-like lesions in the mouth and on the hooves, and lameness. People can carry foot-and-mouth but are generally thought to be safe from infection. Mad cow disease, on the other hand, is a fatal neurological disease that affects cattle and, in some cases, people.

The cost of a foot-and-mouth outbreak would depend on several factors, such as where the outbreak occurs, how long it goes undetected and which animals are affected. And, experts say, there are several ways the virus could be introduced to the United States.

Animals, of course, can carry the virus. People wearing contaminated clothes or footwear can transmit it. The virus can survive on vehicles and equipment. It also can contaminate hay and other foodstuffs. And farmers can introduce the virus when they feed contaminated food waste to livestock.

Much of the preventative focus, here and abroad, has been on disinfecting people's shoes. But Jim Fraley, livestock program coordinator at the Illinois Farm Bureau, calls chances the virus would spread from shoes "negligible." Chances are greater, he says, that the virus would come from contaminated meat smuggled into the United States, improper garbage feeding or bioterrorists.

"We're ready to respond no matter how it gets here," says Anna Cherry, spokeswoman for the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Basically, the feds would depopulate, or slaughter, affected and exposed animals susceptible to the disease, quarantine the surrounding area and try to trace the outbreak's origin. 

And the inspection service, together with the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, is coordinating state response plans throughout the country. While those plans vary to reflect different terrain and livestock, they generally follow federal guidelines by establishing an inner "hot zone," where exposed animals are killed, and an outer "buffer zone," where animals are locked down. 

In the case of an Illinois outbreak, the state agriculture department would work with its federal counterpart and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. The state ag department's Williams says the three-mile hot zone and seven-mile buffer zone are not set in stone. Much would depend, he says, on such factors as wind direction, terrain and the size of the outbreak.

As in Great Britain, a foot-and-mouth outbreak in the United States would mean agricultural and economic disaster.

Illinois has some 2 million head of cattle, 4 million hogs, 120,000 dairy cows and 74,000 sheep and goats that consume hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of animal feed each year. The state agriculture department estimates that 25 percent of Illinois jobs depend on the agricultural industry, counting production and processing.

"If we got foot-and-mouth disease in this country, our exports would stop," says Fraley of the Illinois Farm Bureau. "It would cause a lot of disruption in the markets short-term. I think eventually things would work out but there would be near panic. We would see a big door slam shut in regard to beef and pork exports."

Some Americans already are feeling the impact of foot-and-mouth. The World Pork Expo, which was supposed to be held this June in Des Moines, Iowa, was cancelled. The Illinois State Fair is still scheduled to be held in August, but some farmers are expected to keep their livestock at home. County fairs, though, probably won't be scaled back as farmers are local and their livestock haven't mingled with foreign animals, says Marvin Perzee, Iroquois County Fair board president and a director at large of the Illinois Association of Agricultural Fairs.

Vendors planning to sell pork ribs at the Taste of Chicago beginning June 29 told the Chicago Sun-Times they expect to cut portions because of the rising cost of pork. And at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, visitors who recently traveled abroad are asked not to touch the zoo's cows or sheep.

At this writing, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was declaring victory over foot-and-mouth disease. He said Britain had brought the outbreak under control and had almost completely cleared the backlog of animals waiting to be slaughtered, as well as those slaughtered but waiting to be burned or buried.

American veterinarians and researchers, meanwhile, were returning from Great Britain and re-evaluating this country's own prevention and response plans. "We've always had a plan in mind for a foreign animal disease," says Williams of the state agriculture department. "This just heightened the awareness of how much more detailed a plan we needed because of the voraciousness of this disease."