Mildred M. Haley

Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) has dominated world agricultural news since late February. Although the United States has been free of the disease since 1929, two epidemics—one in Europe (the United Kingdom, France, Ireland, and the Netherlands) and one in South America (Argentina)—could have implications for U.S. agriculture and consumers.

FMD is a severe, highly communicable viral disease of cattle and swine. It also affects sheep, goats, deer, and other cloven-hoofed ruminants. The disease is characterized by fever and blister-like lesions followed by erosions on the tongue and lips, in the mouth, on the mammary glands, and between the hooves. Many affected animals recover, but the disease leaves them debilitated. It causes severe losses in the production of meat and milk, which often translates into financial catastrophe for livestock producers, and higher animal products prices for consumers.

The disease is virulent and highly contagious. Because it spreads widely and rapidly, and because it has grave economic as well as clinical consequences, FMD is one of the diseases that meat/livestock industries dread most. It is not believed to readily affect humans, and the disease has no known implications for the human food chain.

Animals are infected by simple contact with the virus, and there are countless ways for such contact to occur, over and above contact with other infected animals. The virus is airborne, especially in temperate zones. It can travel up to 37 miles over land and 186 miles over water; thus, a breeze can infect animals. FMD can also migrate from people to animals, because the virus can survive in human nasal passages for up to 28 hours. Fodder and the environment—soil, for example—can infect animals, given the virus’s ability to persist in such media for up to one month, depending on temperature, humidity, and other chemical conditions.

The objective of any FMD containment exercise is to prevent the virus from spreading. This is achieved by establishing a quarantine perimeter around identified, symptomatic animals. Infected animals within the perimeter are destroyed as quickly as possible, and carcasses are treated with high heat or specific chemicals to kill the virus. Animals known or suspected to have been in contact with infected animals are similarly destroyed as well. Also, facilities and implements—farm equipment, trucks, clothes, and footwear—known to have had or suspected of contact with the virus are disinfected.

Another option is to vaccinate animals against FMD. Until recently, however, this was viewed as a virtual capitulation to the disease. Because of the inability of laboratory tests to distinguish between vaccinated animals and diseased ones, a vaccinating country or region risks the loss of its “FMD-free” status, thereby jeopardizing its longer-term meat/livestock export prospects. Perspectives on vaccination programs may be changing among government veterinary services, however, in favor of a policy that vaccinates animals in proximity to a quarantine area to control against further spread of the virus.

The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) directs a proactive effort to prevent infection of U.S. livestock by FMD. On February 21, the day after confirmation of the FMD outbreak in England, APHIS prohibited importation of live swine and ruminants and any fresh or frozen swine or ruminant meat or products from Great Britain or Northern Ireland. On March 13, the day after FMD broke out in France, APHIS extended the prohibition to the 15 EU countries. The same restrictions were placed on U.S. imports from Argentina after a March 13 confirmation of FMD outbreaks in Buenos Aires province.

APHIS has heightened surveillance measures at U.S. ports of entry, borders, and airports to ensure that passengers, luggage, and cargo are inspected as appropriate. It has also established a toll-free number (800-601-9327) to answer public queries about the disease. International callers can call 01-301-734-9257. APHIS’s Web site ( details government efforts to prevent an outbreak in the U.S.

Direct U.S. effects of the EU’s FMD outbreak will be largely confined to the market for pork, as the U.S. has already banned imports of EU beef products because of BSE concerns. The EU exported 196 million lb of pork to the 2000; 54% was fresh and frozen pork, categories now subject to the U.S. FMD ban, and 75% came from Denmark. European exports of fresh and frozen pork to the U.S. constituted just 0.6% of total U.S. pork consumption last year, so the average U.S. pork consumer is unlikely to feel significant price effects from Denmark’s absence from U.S. markets. Prices may rise, however, for particular cuts (e.g., baby-back ribs), for which Denmark’s share is large.

Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan banned imports of some pork products from the EU, and the U.S. could feel a more significant backwash from the EU’s absence from Asian pork markets. Denmark’s share of total Japanese pork imports was roughly 33% last year. If Japan’s ban, imposed on March 23, remains in place, Japan may be obliged, at some point, to import its pork from FMD-free North American countries—the U.S., Canada, and Mexico—and U.S. pork prices could rise in response to increased foreign demand.

Argentina exported 131 million lb of beef to the U.S. in 2000, 55 million of which was fresh or frozen and thus subject to FMD import restrictions. Since imports of fresh and frozen beef from Argentina constituted 0.2% of total U.S. per capita beef consumption, it is unlikely that the absence of their imports will significantly affect U.S. beef prices.

by Mildred M. Haley is Agricultural Economist, Economic Research Service, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Washington, DC 20036-5831.