Could It Happen Here?

We are all part of one big happy global family now. But you know what happens when one member of a family comes down with the creeping crud don’t you? Every member in the family seems to catch it.

Today, there are so many ways that healthy members of the global family can catch a bug: through increased travel and tourism, from a flood of illegal immigrants, the very scary threat of bioterrorism, and increasing imports of food. And we don’t have to look far to see the devastating results that foreign diseases can have on a producer, or an entire industry.

Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea is a highly contagious virus that causes diarrhea and vomiting in swine with a death rate of between 50 and 100 percent of infected piglets. The virus was first seen in this country in April 2013 and has spread now to 27 states. The good news is that the disease is not transmissible to other species or to humans, but the bad news is that between seven and eight million pigs have died of it in just the United States.

The PED virus started killing piglets in Europe in 1971 so it can be said that the U.S. swine industry did a good job of keeping it at bay for years. But sooner or later in the global marketplace, as with Mad Cow (BSE) disease, we were bound to catch it. Especially when you consider the many ways it can be spread. Any manure tainted object such as trailers, equipment, boots, and clothing can carry the virus and it can survive for weeks in cold weather. Then there is this little matter… like many of our illegals, our government officials still have no idea how the PED virus entered this country!

Although I’m a well known despiser of poultry, it still saddens me to think of all the tasteless chickens that died in the Spring of last year from avian influenza in the single worst outbreak of an animal disease in this nation’s history! More than 200 premises were affected in 15 States, with more than 48 million birds depopulated. That’s a fancy word for murdered!

But such a disaster could never happen to us in the beef business, right?

One of the dirty little secrets of all this globaloney is that never in our country’s history have we exposed ourselves to so many of the world’s bugs, viruses and illnesses. And there is one lurking out there that has the potential to bring this nation’s cattlemen and cattlewomen to their knees, as it did before in this country.

That’s BILLION, With a B!

It’s been 87 years since there’s been a foot and mouth epidemic in this country. Since 1929 we’ve been free of one of the most economically damaging animal diseases in the world. But we’re playing with fire. While FMD fans its flames in 100 countries around the world we keep signing trade agreements that enable countries with foot and mouth disease, or who share borders with countries that do, to send their beef here. And make no mistake that beef could carry the FMD virus. If and when it arrives on our shores, the results will be disastrous. According to Dustin Pendell, a Kansas State economist, if FMD broke out here losses to producers and consumers would total approximately $188 billion! That’s in addition to government costs of $11 billion for controlling livestock movement and killing off infected and exposed livestock.

Iowa State economist Dermot Hayes estimates “revenue losses to just the U.S. pork and beef industries from an FMD outbreak at $12.9 billion per year over a 10-year period.”

We can get some idea of the carnage FMD would cause in this country by looking at the 2001 outbreak in the United Kingdom. According to BBC News Magazine, “There were 2,000 official cases of FMD in 2001, and by the end of September of that year when the last FMD case was confirmed, more than 6 million pigs, sheep and cattle had been disposed of. Images of the piles of thousands of dead and burning livestock are still vivid. It’s estimated the FMD outbreak cost the public sector over $4,291,950,000, and the private sector more than $7,153,250,000, and that doesn’t take into account the emotional toll that it took on the producers who had to see their livelihood disappear in flames.”

Yes, even with all the scientific breakthroughs, still the most widely used disease control measure to stop FMD is to incinerate them. Just imagine having to destroy your own herd all because we had opened our beef market to over 30 countries around the world.

Rubbing Salt In Our Wounds

The same government that is exposing us to foreign FMD with all their trade deals admits there is a growing FMD threat. So much so that last month the House Agriculture Livestock and Foreign Agriculture Subcommittee convened a meeting to discuss this threat.

According to the committee’s report, FMD spreads easily through livestock movement, by wind currents, on vehicles that have traveled to and from infected farms, and even on inanimate objects that have come in contact with the virus. It affects all cloven hoofed species, including wildlife such as deer and elk. It is so dangerous because it can also be spread by direct or indirect contact with infected animals, spread by aerosol from infected animals, the feeding contaminated garbage, coming in contact with contaminated objects, through artificial insemination and contaminated biologicals.

Even though it would have no effect on humans, its effect on the animal industry would be severe due to the control measures that would be necessary to contain it.

Anything that spreads FMD is called a “fomite”. The boots you’re wearing are a potential fomite, as is your pickup, but the biggest potential fomite of all is imported meat. And get this: in case of an FMD infection here, all of our exports of beef would be halted immediately, while beef and dairy imports would still be allowed from all but the offending country.

Talk about rubbing salt in the wound!

The Odds Against Us

In trying to get a handle on the real potential of an FMD outbreak in the U.S. I came across one study that found the total probability of introduction into the USA of FMD to be 0.415 percent per year, which is equivalent to one introduction every 241 years. That’s not bad, I thought. Until I read further. That number is only the risk from from getting FMD from the importation of live animals, which is far down on the list of ways we could get it.

To give you some idea of the prevalence of FMD around the world I found one study in 2011 that reported that of the 177 member countries of the World Organization for Animal Health, 95 countries had FMD. In other words, over half the world is a breeding ground for the disease! That’s why our government officials say that the possibility of an outbreak in this country, “is very real and is taken seriously by U.S. officials.”

Here was some more good news, or so I thought. According to testimony before the February subcommittee, the likelihood of having a small or regionalized outbreak of FMD here is remote. But that’s only because any outbreak would more likely be huge, not small. Consider that one million pigs and 400,000 cattle are on the road daily in the U.S. When you add in the fairs and shows that concentrate large numbers of animals it is far more likely that if we get hit, it will be a wallop.

Are We Prepared?

One of the most thorough and informative presentations before the February Congressional subcommittee was made by the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC). With 68,000 pork producers marketing more than 110 million hogs annually, the pig producers would have a lot to lose in an FMD outbreak. According to their written testimony, “If an FMD outbreak were to occur, several strategies are available for responding, including the use of vaccine. Currently, the amount of vaccine available at the North American FMD Vaccine Bank is below what would be required for an outbreak. The funding USDA has and is receiving for the National Veterinary Stockpile is insufficient to provide adequate FMD vaccine stockpiles, which would slow the deployment of a vaccination strategy.”

The NPPC report continues, “The FMD virus has seven viral serotypes and more than 60 subtypes, with wide strain variability. Managing and ultimately eradicating FMD requires strain-specific vaccines, making vaccination challenging and very expensive. Sporadic outbreaks with different types continue to pop up in countries around the world.

“After watching countries such as the UK, Korea and Japan, whose livestock populations pale in comparison to the U.S., struggle to manage an FMD outbreak by killing large numbers of animals, APHIS changed its existing policy on managing the disease from “stamping out” to using vaccine to limit the spread. This policy change was endorsed by the livestock industry as a cheaper and more practical alternative. The United States simply cannot “kill” its way out of an FMD outbreak!”

The only problem with trying to combat the spread of FMD through vaccinations is that APHIS “does not have the quantity of vaccine needed to implement this new policy, nor could vaccine be obtained in a timely manner in the event of an outbreak.”

Here’s the rub: “Current U.S. law prohibits live FMD virus from being introduced onto the U.S. mainland,” so foreign companies are the only source of finished vaccines. According to the NPPC testimony, “The United States is the only country in the world to maintain its own antigen bank.” (Located at Plum Island, New York.). “The bank maintains antigen for a limited number of FMD strains. APHIS contracts with foreign vaccine production companies to produce finished vaccine from the antigen stored at Plum Island. If an outbreak occurs, the antigen is shipped to Europe to produce vaccine, and the finished product is shipped back to the U.S. Based on the current production contract, after three weeks, this process would produce only 2.5 million doses of vaccine, and there is no surge capacity to produce more.”

Iowa State’s Dr. Roth estimates that the U.S. livestock industry would need 10 million doses for the first two weeks of an outbreak.

Playing With Fire

Remember that FMD outbreak in the UK we told you about earlier? They still don’t know where it came from. They don’t rule out the possibility that the UK was the target of biological warfare or bioterrorism by unfriendly nations. The CIA lists Foot and Mouth Disease as one of the 15 animal agents that have potential for biological warfare.

Last November there was a different House Ag Committee hearing on American Agriculture and National Security, which highlighted the vulnerability of the U.S. food supply to the potential for foreign animal disease introduction by terrorists, or by accident. The Blue Ribbon report issued by that committee said that a terrorist group wishing to show the weakness of the United States could target our ag industry with FMD.

The panel theorized how such an attack using FMD could occur. “A member of the terrorist group travels to Asia (possibly China) to obtain scabs or fluid from an infected animal. Terrorist infect a small herd of swine to act as an incubator. Samples are collected from herd and buffered at a pH between 6.5 and 11 to maintain viability and are placed in aerosolizesers. Members of the terrorist group travel to major livestock centers in the U.S. and gain access to major livestock markets throughout the United States. Members spray aerosolized FMD into pens of cattle and swine in sale barns, and trucks. Animals are then dispersed to different parts of the country. Some animals begin to develop symptoms as early as 12 hours after exposure, but initially are attributed to shipping stress. After initially exposed animals have been moved out, the pens and grounds are contaminated and posed to infect the next group of animals to enter the livestock market.

“The biologic economic warfare cycle has begun. Before FMD can be initially diagnosed, it has already spread beyond the initial confines of the livestock markets. Trucks hauling animals from market are dispersing the agent around the country.”

So you see, it’s a fair question… could it happen here?

It certainly can if the United States is serious about letting other countries like the African nation of Namibia ship their beef here. That country has had 30 outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease in cattle in the past six months and yet we are seriously considering allowing them access you our beef market.

And we’re only talking about one disease when there are several that could bring us down. Although we’re talking about a different bug, perhaps this will provide a better perspective. Chipotle learned the lesson the hard and expensive way when they began importing beef from Australia in 2014. After they fingered beef from down under as the E. coli culprit that put 21 people in the hospital it was announced that Chipotle’s January 2016 sales were down a whopping 36 percent and one survey showed 60 percent of loyal and longtime customers were actively avoiding eating there. Now put yourself in Chipotle’s shoes. Only in addition to losing all that money you may have to incinerate your entire life’s work. Then tell me again about all the wonders of globalization.

Like our mothers used to tell us, if you play with fire long enough, you will get burned.