Concern over a lack of U.S. preparedness for animal disease emergencies draws action by industry groups and scientists.

A Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) infection in Taiwan last year resulted in the slaughter and burying of 5 million hogs. For old-timers in the beef business that incident brought back memories of the U.S. outbreak of FMD 69 years ago.

Folks with less experience can't relate to the seriousness and implications of such a situation. But planning for such catastrophic disease outbreaks is underway in the hopes of perpetuating such innocence.

Emergency disease preparedness was the focus of the recent Livestock Conservation Institute (LCI) annual meeting. There, attendees witnessed a shocking video detailing the gory effects of a potential FMD outbreak. Its purpose was to heighten awareness and stiffen resolve for building a program to thwart the potential for such an occurrence.

Leaders Gather To Strategize More than 300 federal, state and industry leaders searched for answers during the meeting. At the firing line were members of the Animal Agriculture Coalition (AAC), representing 30 livestock and poultry trade associations, federal and state animal health officials and scientists.

AAC organized the National Animal Health Emergency Management Committee two years ago to design a foreign disease prevention strategy. They reassessed the concerns at the recent LCI session. The conclusion: The nation isn't ready at all levels to respond to emergency diseases.

Changes must be made as international travel expands, more animals move from farm to farm and illegal importations increase, warns Beth Lautner of the National Pork Producers Council.

"Despite an active port inspection service, more than 1 million pounds of illegal contraband of animal products was confiscated last year," Lautner says.

Low Public Priority As concerns about animal diseases increase, the public gives it relatively low priority, Tom Walton, associate deputy administrator, USDA-APHIS, says.

"Protecting American animal agriculture in today's world requires cooperation, participation and partnership," he says. "While USDA assumes leadership, we have neither the resources nor inclination to assume these responsibilities alone. We do, however, recognize the challenges."

There are opportunities in international trade, but not without some risks, Walton warns. "Zero risk translates into no trade," he says. "We must prudently, analytically and scientifically minimize risk to protect the industry we are responsible for. But an emergency animal disease management program must be preplanned and in place before a crisis comes."

Building Industry Cooperation USDA can't do the job alone. It must team up with industry, veterinary practitioners and federal, state and professional organizations to develop a plan that includes four phases, Walton insists. These include:

* Prevention

* Preparedness

* Response

* Recovery

"This means a concentrated effort in planning, recognizing that an animal health crisis is inevitable," he says.

Likewise, relatively few state emergency programs include animal disease control in their plans. That needs to change, most participants agreed. In fact, several states and nations have put programs into effect.

A new National Health Reporting Service that will collect and verify scientifically credible reports to GATT and NAFTA is in its pilot stage, according to Dave Dargatz, Center for Epidemiology and Animal Health.

Also, Canada has spent $71 million in a new National Center for Foreign Animal Diseases, according to Norman Willis. "We have increased our investment in the laboratory and are adding a policy-making group," he says.

To make the public more aware of risks from these diseases, Willis and others emphasize the worst examples, such as BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) in the United Kingdom.

"Should we face something like that here, we could put assessment information into a form the public will consider reasonable and acceptable," he adds.

In addition, Texas has established a Texas Early Response Team (TERT) to tie APHIS and other federal agencies into the program. "It became apparent that APHIS could no longer field a force necessary at a time when the risk level of animal threats seems to be increasing," says Terry Beals, Texas state veterinarian.

Regionalization Is One Tool Beals explains the impact of regionalization discussed at the recent Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA) convention. The program assesses countries and regions for their ability to detect, control and eradicate livestock disease.

Based on current disease status and their level of risk for disease outbreaks, regions would be granted or denied permission to export animals and animal products to the U.S.

"If regionalization is implemented successfully, livestock health will become increasingly important as an international marketing tool," Beals says. "Likewise, livestock movement within a country could be encouraged or denied as states and regions vie to prove their disease-free status.

In Florida, state leaders got together after Hurricane Andrew in 1995 to reevaluate problems.

"That was when animal assessment was adopted," says Florida Department of Agriculture official LeRoy Coffman. "We should soon reach our goal of 50 counties with some sort of animal disaster control in force, including plans for temporary care and disposal of dead animals."

Florida and other officials have expressed concern about the threat from heartwater, a tickborne disease affecting ruminants like cattle, deer and antelope. The tropical bont tick, a major source, has been found in Caribbean islands. Officials fear it could spread into the U.S. by cattle egrets or exotic animals carrying the ticks.

A TSCRA resolution recommended funding Ivomec-treated corn as a way to eradicate fever ticks in white-tailed deer and other ungulates. USDA field trials show it is an effective eradication tool.

Iowa officials plan to include animal disease measures in a new 50,000-sq. -ft. Iowa Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) program at STARC Armory near Johnston.

Indiana officials established an agency called SATE (State Annex for Veterinary Emergencies) with the Indiana Board of Animal Health as the point agency.

"We had dealt with disasters for many years, but we needed a broader team," says state veterinarian Bret Marsh. "Through the network, we divided the state into regions, with the local practicing veterinarian on the scene. He joined with someone at the state board of health or, in some cases, with an APHIS official."

Livestock Conservation Institute (LCI) members want USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to realign its priorities and core funding to respond more effectively to increasing threats from foreign and domestic disease outbreaks.

A resolution approved at the recent LCI meeting urged the Secretary of Agriculture to provide APHIS with necessary resources to:

* Provide adequate emergency response funds for infrastructure, equipment and facilities.

* Set up effective foreign and domestic surveillance and detection programs, and provide trained animal health professionals.

* Work on programs to educate the public.

A new resolution urged USDA-APHIS to work with international organizations to eradicate hog cholera in the island of Hispanola, which could present a significant risk to U.S. livestock. It called for increased port of entry inspections and pre-clearance procedures.

Of particular concern is the risk from the increased sale and interstate movement of exotic animals. The resolution urged APHIS to develop a protocol that various states can use for interstate movement.

There are no obvious answers to identifying exotic animals that have been found to be infected with diseases such as bovine tuberculosis, brucellosis and vectors capable of infecting domestic animals foreign animal diseases or parasites.

To answer some of these concerns, LCI offers a free Cattle Health Report, an eight-page quarterly newsletter covering health issues and disease control and eradication strategies. Call LCI (502/782-9798) to get on the list.

Another new animal disease resource publication is available from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. It describes the Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (classic CJD), Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), and new variant CJD (nvCJD) disease. Access www.beef.org/bse.htm on the Internet. L