Foot-and -mouth outbreak stuns the Western world.

The first hint anything was wrong occurred Feb. 19 when 27 pigs at a British slaughterhouse showed symptoms of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). Within days, the disease had spread across Britain, jumped to continental Europe and cast a pall over ranching in the industrialized world, including the U.S., which has been free of the dreaded viral disease since 1929.

“Everybody is just a little bit nervous,” says Carol Hamilton, who runs a cow/calf operation in southwest Wyoming, an ocean and more than half a continent removed from the British outbreak.

In point of fact, is there anything to worry about in the U.S.? The answer depends on whether any incident of FMD in the U.S. is caught quickly, as it was in France or the Netherlands, or after it has already taken hold across the countryside, as it did in Great Britain.

In any case, the chance for an outbreak may depend on whether the U.S. is lucky because most, if not all, the conditions that led to an outbreak in Britain exist here. These include widespread movement of animals and the fact that most states still allow the practice of feeding garbage to pigs.

British officials say the outbreak that spread across Britain originated in a garbage-feeding pig operation in Northumberland. The same practice was blamed for the 1929 outbreak in California. Despite the dangers, garbage feeding is still permitted in 33 states and Puerto Rico, the Associated Press reports. Federal law, however, requires that garbage be cooked for 30 minutes to kill disease-causing agents, and the USDA recently advised states to contact garbage feeders to make sure they are following federal rules.

The danger is that something will go terribly wrong in spite of rules and regulations designed to prevent it. Britain serves as a case in point.

First, the disease had to get into Britain, which had been free of it for decades. British authorities still don't know how that occurred, but one possibility is that virus-tainted meat was illegally brought into the country and wound up in garbage fed to the Northumberland pigs. In fact, Britain has been a target for meat smugglers hoping to undercut high-priced British meat, Reuters reports.

Then, the initial outbreak had to go undetected, allowing the virus to spread. British agriculture officials now suspect the outbreak went undetected for two and possibly three weeks. During this time, FMD spread to seven other farms. Sheep from one of those farms were shipped to a market in Hexham on Feb. 13, six days before anyone suspected a problem.

Some of those sheep were shipped to a second market at Longtown and then widely dispersed from there.

“So within days, at a time when we were still unaware of the disease, infected sheep were criss-crossing the country in hundreds of separate movements, putting them into contact with other livestock,” Agriculture Minister Nick Brown said in a report to the House of Commons.

“It's a worst-case scenario,” says Kevin Varner, veterinarian in charge of the Kansas region of the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). “You had this person feeding garbage to swine. The owner didn't recognize the disease. It festered. The virus multiplies faster in swine than in other animals.

“Next door is a big sheep farm. There was a holiday coming up, so the sheep farmer produced a lot of lambs. His sheep got infected at a time when he was marketing his animals to a lot of markets. You send an explosively contagious virus in 40 different directions and you've got a lot of problems.”

The British government responded with a slash and burn policy of killing not only the infected herds, but also healthy animals on neighboring farms. The idea was to keep the disease from jumping from farm to farm by removing potential hosts for new infections. Soon, flaming pyres of dead animals lit the countryside.

But the government couldn't keep up. There weren't enough vets to inspect animals for disease. There weren't enough supplies to incinerate the growing piles of rotting carcasses. There wasn't enough machinery to bury the remains.

British troops were called in. Travel and tourism was brought to a near standstill to prevent inadvertent movement of the virus from town to town. Yet, the disease continued to spread, bringing despair to farm families and an eerie silence to growing patches of the countryside where the killing squads had done their work. There was speculation Britain would have to slaughter half of its 55 million cattle, sheep and pigs before the epidemic would end.

U.S. Keeping Vigil

But could it happen here in the U.S.?

“Falling stock prices are probably a much bigger threat to the beef industry,” says Chuck Lambert, chief economist with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. “We've kept the disease out for 72 years. We know what it takes to contain it.”

The evidence in continental Europe suggests the disease can be contained if found quickly. There's always the danger, however, that it might go undetected.

Last fall, a consortium that includes the U.S., Mexico and Canada simulated a hypothetical FMD outbreak. Officials assumed it began with a garbage-feeding swine operation in Texas, one of the states that permits the use of pig swill. Then they assumed normal trafficking in animals spread the disease.

“In one week's time, it had moved from South Texas into Canada, Mexico and points in between,” says Ken Olson, an animal health specialist with the American Farm Bureau. “In one week's time, we had exposed virtually the whole country. That's why it's important to identify the disease and stop animal movement as quickly as possible.”

Like many folks, Olson is concerned by the FMD risk presented by the high level of travel and commerce among the U.S., Britain and Europe.

“In order to keep FMD out, we have to be both good and lucky. I think we're pretty good. I hope we're lucky,” he says.

What The U.S. Can Learn

If FMD breaks out in the U.S., the federal government is prepared to swing into action and do what Britain did — initiate a system of slaughter, quarantines and a halt to animal shipments.

Britain's experience, however, suggests the best-laid plans often don't work. Other options aren't painless, either. Here's an outline of what was done, what went wrong and what might have been done differently. It's based on interviews, official statements and hundreds of news reports.

First, was Britain penny wise and pound foolish? Like the U.S., Britain permitted the practice of feeding garbage to pigs. The practice provided a cheap source of feed for 8,000 pigs and a way to dispose of garbage without sending it to the dump.

By legalizing the practice, the government had some measure of control, including a requirement that pig swill be cooked to kill disease-causing agents such as FMD. If garbage feeding were outlawed, pig swill feeders might go underground where they would not be subject to government oversight.

British Agriculture Secretary Nick Brown acknowledged as much in a recent statement: “Nor will banning swill feeding necessarily prevent the risk of illegal feeding,” he said. Nevertheless, Brown said, the risk to the rest of the British livestock was greater than the benefits of garbage feeding, and he proposed a ban on the practice.

Second, should Britain have resorted to widespread vaccinations rather than widespread slaughter? Vaccinations have drawbacks.

  • Both FMD-infected animals and FMD-vaccinated animals will exhibit antibodies. As a result, disease-free countries will ban imports of livestock from a country that vaccinates.

  • There are seven types and 70 sub-types of FMD. There is no universal cross-protection in FMD vaccinations. The vaccinations must be targeted at a specific strain.

The British experience also illustrates the sheer logistical nightmare of an epidemic. How does a country quickly dispose of hundreds of thousands of slaughtered animals? An exposed carcass can still spread the disease.

Moving them for burial may spread the disease, but burying them in the wrong place could create a different catastrophe. For instance, British officials now acknowledge they buried 900 cattle and sheep in a location that could contaminate an underground spring used by local farms. The animals were exhumed and reburied in a new location.

Britain also found it difficult and sometimes impossible to trace the movement of infected animals. For instance, the disease was first discovered at a slaughterhouse. Government investigators had to work backwards to figure out where the animals came from. Some sales of sheep were done without adequate paperwork and investigators had no idea where the sheep had been shipped.

Finally, epidemic control can cause enormous financial pain to industries unrelated to ranching. In Britain, officials closed Stonehenge, parks, forests and other tourist attractions in affected areas.

Would the U.S. government be willing to shut Yellowstone National Park to prevent infecton of the park's bison, elk and antelope? If those animals were to become infected, they could track the disease out of the park into Wyoming and Montana ranches. Would the government be willing to slaughter the park's bison, elk and antelope if they got the disease?

Moreover, many ranches now earn needed income by selling hunting privileges or bringing in paying guests, some of which come from Europe. Would ranchers be willing to give up the extra income to keep the disease out?

The U.S. hasn't faced FMD since the 1929 outbreak, which was confined to California. Much has changed in the intervening years; we now have international travel and trade, and mega-agriculture that features big ranches and huge feedlots. In the good times, trade, tourism and big agriculture make economic sense. But if disease strikes, all those factors could spell disaster.

Doug McInnis is a Casper, WY, journalist specializing in business management topics.

Foot-And-Mouth Facts

What is foot-and-mouth (FMD)?

FMD is a viral, easily spread disease of cloven-hoofed ruminants. It affects cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, deer, elk antelope and other split-hoofed animals.

Can the virus survive outside live animals?

The virus can live for varying lengths of time in all sorts of conditions and places, including carcasses, animal by-products, water, straw, bedding, manure and human nasal passages. It can also survive on clothing, shoes and processed meat.

How does it spread?

FMD can spread by animal-to-animal contact, contaminated water or feed, improperly cooked garbage and the wind. The virus can also hitch a lift on clothing, shoes and the tires of trucks and cars.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms include blisters in the mouth or feet, rapid rise in temperature, sticky foaming, stringy saliva, lameness, reduced appetite and lower conception rates. Pregnant animals may abort and the blisters may burst, discharging clear or cloudy fluid, leaving raw areas surrounded by bits of loose tissue. Meat-producing animals may not regain normal weights for months.

Can the disease be confused with other diseases?

Yes, and the problem of identification may be compounded by the fact that most vets and ranchers have never seen it. The U.S. has been free of the disease since 1929.

Are U.S. cattle at risk if the virus reaches the U.S.?

Yes. American animals have no immunity since the disease has not been seen here in more than seven decades.
— Source United States Department of Agriculture

Foot-And-Mouth Disease Inflicts Economic And Emotional Damage

The British FMD outbreak has left a worldwide trail of economic havoc that has damaged foreign trade, manufacturing and tourism.

The biggest victim is, of course, Great Britain, where recent estimates of the long-run cost of the outbreak have hit nearly $13 billion. Hundreds of thousands of animals have been slaughtered and buried, and tourism has been knocked flat by travel restrictions designed to cut the chance that people will spread the virus on their clothing and vehicles.

Welsh tourism, which normally employs 100,000 workers, has been losing 25% of its revenue. Stonehenge, the ring of ancient stone monoliths that is among Britain's major tourist attractions, is shut down. And, tourist-oriented pubs in picturesque rural communities, normally crowded with spring and summer visitors, are deserted.

The epidemic threatens to produce shortages of special varieties of English wool. A leading English supplier of meat pies warned the FMD crisis could impact its bottom line. The country's leather-making industry has been battered by lack of orders and the likelihood that leather would be in short supply as more animals went to slaughter.

Scores of nations have shut their borders to imports of live animals, meat products and other goods in an effort to keep FMD out. The U.S. ban includes farm equipment. And in the U.S., some states have enacted their own restrictions. Virginia, for example, decreed that horses, ponies and zebras from countries with FMD may not enter the state.

The growing ring of financial ripples suggests the economic distress is beginning to impact the U.S., even though the disease hasn't struck here. For instance, Timberland Co., the New Hampshire-based producer of leather footwear, warned investors that FMD could impact its financial performance. The company cited an increase in hide prices and added that the price could go still higher.

A variety of smaller impacts have been felt here, too. For instance, Northwest Airlines pulled pork and lamb from the menus of flights from Europe to the U.S. The virus could remain alive in meat served on in-flight meals and wind up in the garbage when the planes arrive here.

On-Farm Prevention Efforts

The Colorado Department of Agriculture offers these suggestions for avoiding foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) contamination.

Number one: Quarantine for 30 days newly acquired animals or animals that have traveled to trade, stock shows or county fairs. Maintain separate feeding and water facilities for quarantined animals, and feed them last to avoid contaminating feeding sites for the rest of the herd. Change clothes and boots before and after working with quarantined animals.

Foreign Visitors

If entertaining visitors from FMD countries:

Require visitors to avoid contact with livestock for five days before leaving their country, and ask them to avoid coming to the ranch for five days after they arrive in the U.S. Ask that they wear sneakers or gym shoes. They're easier to disinfect.

Purchase new boots and clothes for visitors and have them change at a site away from the ranch. Require guests to shower and wash their hair before they put on new clothes.

Put their old clothing in a plastic bag. Mist the outside of the plastic bag with vinegar to disinfect it, then take the clothes and gym shoes to a laundromat and soak them in pure vinegar for at least five minutes before washing them in laundry detergent and hot water. Dry in high heat. Tie the old bag shut and dispose it away from the ranch.

Disinfect your hands before handling newly washed and dried clothes and shoes, then put clothes and shoes in a new plastic bag for storage until the guests leave. Refuse to accommodate guests who won't cooperate.

Forbid guests from bringing dogs, cats or other animals, including horses. Don't allow guests to bring food, particularly meat or dairy products, from their country. Don't import food from abroad. FMD virus can survive for more than a year in some foods.

If FMD Hits The U.S.

If FMD strikes the U.S., here are precautions based on information from Britain's Agriculture Ministry.

  • Allow only one entrance and exit to your operation. Keep the gate locked when you're not using it.

  • Supply a tub of disinfectant, a brush and a disinfectant pump spray at the entrance. Change the disinfectant daily.

  • Disinfect the tires and wheels of all vehicles entering and leaving the ranch.

  • Bar non-essential vehicles and visitors from your ranch. Arrange for needed deliveries at the ranch entrance. Install a bell or some other device at the gate to alert you of visitors, or ask visitors or delivery persons to phone ahead so you can meet them at the gate.

  • Keep a record of all deliveries and visitors. In the event FMD strikes your ranch, this will help investigators backtrack to find the source.

  • House animals away from the perimeter of your ranch.

  • Destroy rats and other vermin. They can spread the disease. Keep livestock away from household waste or bones.

    Keep dogs, cats and other pets, including horses, under control. They can spread the disease though they can't contract it.

  • Limit contact with other ranchers' livestock and with other ranchers or their employees. If contact is necessary, disinfect your shoes and clothing and shower with hot water and soap, including your hair.

Wildlife Can Spread Foot-And-Mouth Disease

One reason FMD spreads so fast is that it can hitch a ride on almost anything, including wildlife.

Deer, elk, antelope and wild hogs are susceptible to the disease and could spread it rapidly if FMD reached the U.S. Deer are ubiquitous in the U.S. Feral hogs are found in the Southeast, Southwest and parts of the Midwest.

“You can't round up deer and hogs. And when you start putting human pressure on them, they just move away, says Jim Link, director of the ranch management program at Texas Christian University. “Hogs are very intelligent. If you start trapping them, it won't work very long. If you chase them with dogs, they learn to get away. And they're very prolific.

“Deer are everywhere,” says Link, “Talk about a mobile animal. They would be extremely difficult to control.”

Then, he adds, there are the public relations aspects of destroying wildlife.