Biosecurity isn't a new concept in the cattle business. Producers practice its basic tenets each time they inquire about the health status of a prospective purchase or, after getting the animal home, isolate it for a period before running it with the herd.

A good, targeted vaccination program is another aspect of biosecurity, which basically means protecting against the introduction of endemic or foreign animal diseases (FADs), parasites or pests, and preventing their establishment and spread.

But the term biosecurity took on a whole new urgency in the aftermath of the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks. Americans suddenly realized en masse that the U.S. could be vulnerable to terrorism in very tragic and exotic ways.

On the livestock side, the specter of FADs, such as foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), moved from the realm of accidental to the chilling possibility of intentional.

In February 2003, the Office of Homeland Security identified agriculture and food as one of 11 critical infrastructures in the U.S. No surprise when one considers agriculture is a $1.5-trillion annual contributor to the U.S. gross domestic product, with beef and dairy cattle constituting its largest sector.

In fact, a Congressional Research Service report prepared for Congress and presented in August 2004 listed the following consequences to an agro-terrorism event, though they'd also apply to an accidental FAD introduction:

  • The value of lost production, and the cost of destroying diseased or potentially diseased products, and containment costs.

  • Loss of export markets.

  • The multiplier effects on businesses dependent on the affected industry.

  • Mounting eradication and containment costs, and animal indemnities.

  • A loss of consumer confidence that could tank the entire market segment.

A real-life scenario

Such a scenario played out in the UK when a 2001 FMD outbreak resulted in the destruction of 4 million animals and total losses to UK agriculture and tourism of about $13 billion. It's thought the virus was imported from Asia in unprocessed animal products illegally fed to pigs.

A “Lessons Learned Inquiry” by the UK's Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs found that “no amount of effort can eliminate the risk of damage from FMD.” But, reducing the risk of economic damage as much as possible requires a range of coordinated actions by government, the farming industry and others in the rural economy working together.” To view the report, go to http://213.121.214.218/fmd/report/index.htm

Among the findings were:

  • Maintain vigilance via international, national and local surveillance.

  • Be prepared with comprehensive contingency plans, building mutual trust and confidence through training and practice.

  • React with speed and certainty to an emergency or escalating crisis by applying well-rehearsed crisis management procedures.

  • Explain policies, plans and practices by communicating with all interested parties comprehensively, clearly and consistently in a transparent and open way.

  • Respect local knowledge and delegate decisions whenever possible, without losing sight of the national strategy.

  • Have a legislative framework that gives government the powers needed to respond effectively to the emerging needs of a crisis.

  • Base policy decisions on best available science.

Those precepts have been confirmed in mock exercises across the U.S. In June 2003, the National Agricultural Biosecurity Center at Kansas State University conducted “High Stakes,” one of a series of simulations designed to exercise Kansas' preparedness for, response to and consequence mitigation of an agroterrorism attack. A total of 130 county, state, federal and industry participants representing 20 organizations responded to a scenario in which five terrorist teams armed with FMD contaminants attacked cattle and swine in shipment at transportation nodes in five states including Kansas.

“I don't think you can ever prepare enough for one of these events,” says the Kansas Livestock Association's Todd Domer. “But it showed there must be true partnerships between all of the agencies, government and industry to be effective in responding to an FAD.”

U.S. risks increasing?

That FAD risks might be increasing would seem to be borne out by a Jan. 24 article in the Wall Street Journal. Joel Millman writes: “economic and social trends in Latin America, including liberalized trade and travel among its nations, are creating new incentives and opportunities for would-be migrants to head for the U.S.”

One group in particular, he points out, is Brazilian nationals, of whom 8,600 were arrested crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in the fiscal year ending September 2004. That's up from 1,200 four years prior, which officials attribute to Mexico dropping its visa requirements for Brazilians in 2002. U.S. law-enforcement agents say they're on track to apprehend almost 20,000 Brazilian illegals in 2005.

That's disconcerting, says Samuel Fassig, DVM, because, while FMD hasn't been found in the U.S. since 1929 and in Mexico since 1953, there are areas in four northern Brazilian states with active FMD cases (as well as concerns in Paraguay and Argentina). Fassig is director, Veterinary Business Resources for General Fire & Casualty Co.

“An FMD introduction could become a North American natural occurrence with any illegal bringing in sausage or beef products from one of these known contaminated areas,” Fassig says.

Just how devastating an FMD outbreak in a concentrated livestock area could be was illustrated in a 1999 University of California-Davis study. The study by Javier M. Ekboir looked at the potential impact of an FMD outbreak in Tulare County, an area dense with large-scale dairy and hog operations and feedlots. Get the report at http://aic.ucdavis.edu/pub/fmd.html.

Ekboir's report emphasizes the crucial importance of quick detection and immediate control of an outbreak of the disease. The results indicate that just a few days' delay in action can mean billions of extra dollars in control costs, production losses and lost markets.

A recent RAND Study listed the following as factors that make California and other high-density livestock areas vulnerable to major damage due to FAD:

  • Concentrated, intensive farming practices that make a contagious disease outbreak difficult to contain.

  • Increased susceptibility of livestock.

  • Insufficient farm/food-related security and surveillance. Farms seldom incorporate vigorous means to prevent unauthorized access, and most animal auctions and barn sales are devoid of organized on-site surveillance.

  • An inefficient, passive disease-reporting system. Responsibility for reporting unusual occurrences of animal disease lies with livestock producers, who may have a disincentive to do so due to lack of a consistent agricultural indemnity program.

  • Inappropriate veterinarian and diagnostic training.

  • The trend toward larger herds and breeding operations, which precludes the option of attending to animals individually, makes it more likely that emerging diseases will be overlooked.

These points continue to be addressed, says Danelle Bickett-Weddle, DVM, associate director of the Center for Food Security and Public Health (CFSPH) in Iowa State University's College of Veterinary Medicine. CFSPH is among a number of projects and programs designed to spread biosecurity awareness. CFSPH prepares and distributes educational materials on bioterrorism and agroterrorism agents to veterinarians, public health officials and medical professionals.

“Our effort is to train veterinarians in each state who can then use our materials to train home-state colleagues and animal owners,” Bickett-Weddle says. “We now have a network of about 300 veterinarians who have been through one of our training programs. And, they have helped educate more than 31,000 people using our materials in the past two years.”

CFSPH maintains resources at (http://www.cfsph.iastate.edu/) to help educate the public. Other CFSPH materials include free fact sheets, a Web-based course on Emerging and Exotic Diseases of Animals for veterinarians and veterinarian students (see www.vin.com) offered through the Veterinarian Information Network, as well as a textbook.

“CFSPH has become a resource nationwide and internationally on preparedness efforts,” Bickett-Weddle says.

Protecting the economy

But Fassig says one glaring and significant shortcoming is the lack of catastrophic livestock risk insurance to cover losses suffered by individual producers. He says exposure of the national cattle herd to an FAD could potentially mean a $100-billion liability.

“Many livestock producers assume the government will bail them out in event of a catastrophic disease,” Fassig says. “The reality is payments by any agency — state or federal — to producers for depopulations may not be timely, at real-market value or even deliverable under current state and federal government programs.”

Fassig says USDA, via the Risk Management Agency and the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation, currently provides reinsurance for some $45 billion in liabilities and $3.5 billon in subsidies for horticultural and whole-farm production and revenue loss. But, nothing comparable is available for livestock.

He says the majority of risks associated with livestock operations are uninsured. And, such coverage was excluded from the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act of 2002. That leaves smaller producers who can't self-insure especially vulnerable without any affordable risk-management tools.

“Financially, the private sector alone can't provide sufficient insurance coverage for the livestock industry to fully support and provide for all producers the safety net for catastrophic disease and weather exposures associated with cattle production,” Fassig says.

As an example, Fassig points to the devastation caused by last fall's hurricane season. Based on USDA's National Animal Health Emergency Plan, had the 1.2 million head of affected Florida cattle instead been exposed to FMD, Fassig says the scenario would likely have developed like this:

  • A 30-mile area of quarantine would be placed around every incident site for up to 180 days. No movement of animals would be allowed, and animals found moving to outside the zone would be destroyed.

  • Within a six-mile zone around each positive index case, all cloven-foot animals would be designated for depopulation and disposal, along with premises disinfection.

  • All animals within the 30-mile zone around the six-mile impact zone would be tested, and owners must continue feeding at USDA humane standard levels.

  • Within the 30-mile zone, it is possible that animals testing negative might be vaccinated. But, once vaccinated by officials, those animals could only move directly to slaughter.

  • USDA would not pay for rebuilding structures, fencing, feed equipment, ponds, etc., destroyed during disinfection and cleanup.

  • And, USDA would not pay normal operating expenses for a producer during the diagnostic, depopulation or disinfection process, or employee wages for the producer's operation.

Fassig points out that, in addition, banks holding notes on real property from operations with FMD-positive livestock would experience a devaluation of collateral due to perceived future liability for the farm, equipment and other tangibles. And should the farmer go bankrupt as a result of quarantine, depopulation or post-cleanup, the bank may not be able to salvage any collateral for fear of future lawsuits.

“There is no insurance program readily available for all livestock producers in the U.S. to help manage risk for catastrophic disease events or that helps producers stay in business should such an event occur,” Fassig says. “USDA has only limited ad hoc disaster payment plans for quarantine, destruction/depopulation and disinfection.”

The existence of such a catastrophic loss program on the crop side, Fassig says, is the reason the grain markets don't see the volatility that ensues in the livestock markets on the rumor of a BSE- or FMD-infected animal.

In a 2002 resolution regarding federal reinsurance for private-sector catastrophic livestock risk insurance, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) resolved: “that because adequate state and federal funding of existing indemnity programs, in the event of widespread catastrophic occurrences, is uncertain and unrealistic to depend on, and whereas there is no readily available or affordable private-sector or governmental financial capacity to fund catastrophic events; NCBA strongly supports the development of a reinsurance program to establish risk sharing with the private sector and ensure the availability of catastrophic risk insurance products.”

Fixing Catastrophic Coverage

Samuel Fassig, DVM, a past president of the American Association of Industrial Veterinarians, is endorsing the introduction, support and passage of the Stockgrowers Insurance Parity Act of 2005. The bill would authorize the Secretary of Agriculture to take action to implement federal catastrophic reinsurance in a cooperative effort with private-sector insurance companies to provide a minimum “safety net” for the livestock industry.

View the proposal by going to www.cattlerisk.com. Select “Resource Library” on the opening page. After registering “yes” to the “confidentiality agreement, click on “Documents,” then select “Livestock Resource Library.” In the “Legislative Affairs” folder on the ensuing page, select “SIPA 2005 Draft Legislation.”