A total of six international flights arrived at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport on April 5. That represents a day's work for Gary Thomsen, the Minneapolis port director, and his small crew of USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) plant protection and quarantine (PPQ) technicians.
Thomsen and his team are on the front line of defense to keep foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) out of the U.S. (See story on page 16). When passengers disembark and gather their luggage in Minneapolis, it's this APHIS crew that interviews them, X-rays and hand inspects selected luggage, disinfects suspicious shoes and confiscates any contraband meat products.
Surveillance is stepped up these days, says Thomsen, a 20-year APHIS veteran. Before the heightened security that came with the FMD outbreak in England, three PPQ people would have worked a flight from London. These days, it's a team of five.
It's a tough job. Look at the chart on page 68 for the scale of their challenge. In 1999, PPQ folks at U.S. ports of entry considered 584,000 commercial aircraft and 141,000 private aircraft coming into the U.S., in addition to 400 million international visitors and 125 million private vehicles.
With a task of this magnitude, the fact that FMD hasn't been seen in the U.S. in more than 70 years is a testament to the know-how and can-do of the U.S. inspection and surveillance effort. It's also at least partially attributable to some measure of luck.
Thomsen says that as travelers' awareness of the potential role they could play in the spread of FMD and other foreign animal diseases has increased, so has the cooperation level of those travelers at U.S. ports of entry. Watching the practiced precision of the inspection process at the Minneapolis airport on that April afternoon, I nonetheless was struck with the thought that with all its educational efforts, use of technology, passenger profiling and powers of observation, the inspection and surveillance effort is reliant on folks playing by the rules.
And, that's a worrisome thought when you hear about the potential for biological terrorism by foreign interests and/or governments bent on disrupting the U.S. economy by attacking agriculture. It's even more distressing when domestic kooks like Ingrid Newkirk of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals say publicly that they hope FMD does hit the U.S.
By some estimates, the long-run costs of the FMD outbreak in England could end up costing that country as much as $13 billion. That's derived from the value of destroyed animals, lost farm income and closed markets. Then, throw in the drain on government budgets, the upheaval of life across the country and the losses sustained by related industries such as tourism.
USDA Beefs Up Its Budget
The effort to keep the U.S. free of FMD and other infectious livestock diseases received a big boost in mid-April when U.S. Ag Secretary Ann Veneman announced the authorization of an additional $32 million for the PPQ effort (page 68). That money will pay for the hiring of an additional 127 permanent officers and technicians, 27 canine officers, 173 temporary inspector positions and 20 veterinarians.
That extra staffing will certainly help, but the security effort needs to move beyond U.S. ports of entry. U.S. livestock producers need to be involved. If FMD hits the U.S., how quickly the infection is identified and the area isolated are keys to minimizing its impact.
Corrie Brown, a University of Georgia veterinary pathobiologist, estimates that 99% of American veterinarians have never seen a case of FMD. For livestock producers, the figure is likely even higher.
Find out about the disease, its transmission and symptoms. You can find that information on the USDA Web site: www.aphis.usda.gov/oa/fmd/index.html; the British Ministry for Fisheries and Food: www.maff.gov.uk/; or our Web site at www.beef-mag.com. There's also a toll-free USDA number for questions and to report suspicious cases at 800/601-9327.