Risks of FMD Highlighted

By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor

OMAHA (DTN) — The U.S. has kept foot-and-mouth disease out of the country since 1929, but the livestock industry, pharmaceutical companies and the federal government would not be ready to handle an outbreak of the disease if it were to hit the national cattle and hog herds.

Given the flow of animals in the U.S., foot-and-mouth disease could spread quickly across the country before the industry and government could respond.

The House Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock and Foreign Agriculture held a hearing in Washington on Thursday highlighting the risks facing the livestock industry because the U.S. does not have adequate FMD vaccine supplies and could not cull animals quickly enough should foot-and-mouth disease return to the U.S.

Rep. David Rouzer, R-N.C., chairman of the subcommittee that held the hearing, and other lawmakers said they were concerned that an FMD outbreak could cripple the livestock industry across the country. "FMD would be extremely detrimental to our livestock industry if it were to be introduced into the U.S., and those economic effects would be felt far beyond animal agriculture," Rouzer said.

An FMD outbreak would immediately shut off about $20 billion in exports for almost all livestock and dairy products. Iowa State University estimated in 2011 that an uncontrolled outbreak of FMD would cost agriculture nationally roughly $200 billion in losses over 10 years. It would not just affect the livestock industry, but would also train wreck crop markets for feed grains such as corn.

Foot-and-mouth disease is not a human public health or food-safety risk. The disease leads to painful blisters and fever for livestock, as well as swelling glands. Mature animals can recover, but still spread the disease. Smaller calves and pigs are more likely to die from it. At least 96 countries either have chronic or sporadic flare-ups of FMD in cattle, hogs, sheep, goats, deer, elk or other wildlife.

Under traditional USDA protocol, any area affected by an outbreak would face an immediate "stop movement and stamping out" policy that essentially means culling of all cattle and hogs.

"It has become apparent we can’t count on stop movement and stamping out if we get into a large outbreak because agriculture has changed so extensively," said Jim Roth, a veterinary professor at Iowa State University. "We have very large herd sizes that are too populated to be stamped out in 24 to 48 hours."

Roth noted the sheer size of some animal operations, with dozens of feedlots holding more than 50,000 head of cattle and swine operations with more than 20,000. The scale of these single operations may make them too large to rapidly euthanize animals to attempt to stop an outbreak. Then there is the extensive movement of livestock in the country. Approximately 400,000 cattle and 1 million hogs can be on the roads in trucks in a given day to different farms or packing operations, Roth noted. Animals such as wild deer and feral swine also can spread the disease, making it even harder to control.

"So unless an FMD infection is detected quickly and stamped out, it could spread very quickly," Roth said.

Groups such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and National Pork Producers Council urged Congress to invest more in stockpiling the vaccine for FMD. Howard Hill, a veterinarian and former president of the National Pork Producers Council, reiterated Roth’s concerns and noted that a vaccine strategy would be both less costly and more humane to implement. "The United State simply cannot kill its way out of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak," Hill said.

After last year’s avian influenza outbreak and the struggles of trying to cull and dispose of millions of dead poultry, USDA and livestock industry leaders began more heavily examining what it would take to deploy rapid vaccinations rather than destroying a high population of livestock. USDA alone spent more than $1 billion trying to contain avian influenza last year.

Strategies beyond stamping out animal herds in the case of FMD would require large quantities of vaccine that simply aren’t available. North America has a vaccine bank shared between the U.S., Canada and Mexico, but it does not have an adequate stockpile of FMD vaccine to manage an outbreak. A 2004 Homeland Security directive cited the need for a national veterinary stockpile, but the stockpile has never been adequately funded. At the moment, there are no FMD vaccines in the USDA stockpile. Adding complications to it, Roth noted the vaccine bank would need 23 different kinds of vaccine to properly deal with FMD because of the different strains of the disease.

The budget right now for the vaccine bank is roughly $1.9 million. In an industry white paper written by Roth, a robust FMD vaccine stockpile would cost roughly $150 million a year over five years to develop. In roughly five years, the U.S. would have the capability to quickly respond to any strain of the virus.

Currently, U.S. law restricts production of a vaccine to foreign companies. Yet, the available antigen held by USDA and the abilities of manufacturers overseas to produce FMD vaccine means it would take at least three weeks to produce just 2.5 million doses of FMD vaccine should an outbreak occur. Right now there also is no "surge capacity" to produce more vaccine, Hill said. At least 10 million doses are estimated as needed for the first few weeks of an outbreak, then capabilities are needed to ramp up to at least 40 million doses.

FMD vaccine is not just a question of the money, but a time element. Right now, conventional pharmaceutical manufacturers around the world do not have the capacity to deal with the demand that would be needed by the U.S. if an outbreak occurred, said Steve Parker, director of veterinary public health for the pharmaceutical company Merial.

"As of today, there is no excess industrial capacity for FMD vaccine manufacturing," Parker said. "If we have an outbreak today, it may be two to three years to get the vaccine to you that you need to address this."

Hill and other livestock industry people testifying also said they were highly concerned about the risks of agro-terrorism bringing the FMD virus into the U.S.

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN