Have you ever truly considered what would happen if a foreign animal disease like foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) entered the U.S.? Not the billion-dollar industry ramifications, including the depopulation of whole herds to eradicate the disease, or the immediate loss of all export markets for all U.S. meat products — but how it would affect your own operation, even if your stock weren't infected?

“We would ask for a voluntary stop movement of all livestock in the U.S. and ask producers to immediately report any signs of the disease to the state veterinarian,” says Joe Annelli, director of emergency programs for USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). He explains that once FMD was confirmed — at a sale barn, for instance — state or federal authorities would implement the stop movement. Meanwhile, veterinarians would track down livestock that may have come into contact with the infected ones, test them and determine how widespread the infection might be.

Best case, the stop movement would be in place for three days, but it could last much longer. USDA officials point out even while a stop movement is in place in some parts of the country, movement by permit may be allowed within quarantine zones.

“Three days gives us a good opportunity to see clinical signs showing up, and we would have a good idea about the extent of the disease and what areas of the country might be infected,” says Annelli. “While the stop movement will hurt in the short-run, complying with it is in the best long-term interests of individual producers and the industry as a whole.”

Livestock producers in the Netherlands found that out the hard way a few years ago when classical swine fever infected the southern part of the country. Faced with a stop movement, producers loaded up their livestock during what became known as the “Night of Lights” and moved the animals to the northern part of the country where they could still market them. What happened was the entire country was infected and all movement was stopped.

Even so, stop movements in the U.S. would be based on voluntary compliance because state and federal officials know there is no way to enforce a mandatory one.

Producers — The Front Line

The bottom line is that time can be a blessing or a curse when it comes to diseases like FMD. Kill it in a hurry and you can avoid catastrophe; take too long diagnosing it, tracing it and managing it, and the disease can spread like wildfire in a high wind.

With that in mind, John Clifford, USDA associate deputy administrator of veterinary services, points out, “Identification is important in any trace-back system… Any type of ID system is going to help us in those efforts.”

While the lack of a standardized national ID system today doesn't prevent USDA from tracing animals, it can make tracking them slower than if such a system was in place. With a system, Annelli explains, “You can much more rapidly identify where the disease has been and where it's going.”

That's one reason the National Food Animal Identification (NFAI) Task Force recently recommended that the U.S. Animal Health Association (USAHA) develop a standardized national ID program to enable individual animal trace-back within 48 hours. That's also one reason why USAHA adopted the recommendations and requested USDA-APHIS to use the work plan in constructing a national system.

The preceding may look awfully flat on paper, but the fact that national organizations representing the major livestock species agree there needs to be a national ID system — which they did in order to compile the task force plan — is historic.

“For the first time, we have a work plan that we can build from,” says Neil Hammerschmidt, NFAI Task Force chairman. “As much as anything, the livestock industry has come to a point of agreement that we need to move forward with a national ID program.”

Among other things, the task force plan recommends a national system in which all premises and individual animals can be identified, not all at once, but over time.

This information, along with animal movements, would be recorded in either a central database or within a seamless multi-base infrastructure. This would allow trace-back of individuals or individual groups of livestock within 48 hours. Phasing in the complete plan over a period of several years is recommended.

As USDA-APHIS works its way through this with producer organizations, Hammerschmidt emphasizes, “One of the most important challenges is that we continue to move forward as a total livestock industry rather than as separate components of the industry.”

Industry organizations and other stakeholders will have an opportunity to review and comment on the national ID workplan through March 2003.

“This will allow livestock organizations time to review the plan at their respective conventions, board and committee meetings and to gather producer feedback,” says Hammerschmidt.

So far, producers can thank themselves and USDA for the fact — some would have said a far-fetched notion earlier this year — that FMD remains outside the U.S., along with other feared foreign animal diseases.

Success so far does nothing to minimize the threat, though.