How the US has avoided Europe's livestock problems

Strong protection measures, such as this week's ban on EU meat, have helped keep diseases at bay.

Call it the downside of globalized agriculture: As nations get hooked on imported hamburgers, foreign hams, and other specialty meats, they increase the risk of spreading livestock-borne diseases around the world.

Dozens of countries are moving to contain that risk in light of this week's spread of foot-and-mouth disease to at least four new countries. Discovered last month in Britain, the highly contagious infection has been confirmed in meat-exporting France and Argentina and meat-importing Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

These revelations have rocked European agriculture, already reeling from the devastation of "mad-cow" disease. They're roiling world agriculture markets, putting food inspectors on heightened alert, and sparking sharp debate over whether the move to industrialized agriculture - and its increasingly global nature - have caused the problem or represent a solution to it.

Although the answers are not clear-cut, they suggest the United States and other countries with strong agriculture inspection and protection measures may be able to keep such livestock diseases at bay.

"We're increasing exports and therefore the potential for problems is probably increasing as well," says John Lawrence, director of the Iowa Beef Center at Iowa State University in Ames. "But it's the minute detail that caused the problem [to take hold in Britain]. That doesn't necessarily have to do with global trade."

The clearest trend is that the livestock industry is going global. Every year, more animals and animal products cross national borders than ever before. Since 1996, world exports of beef, veal, pork, and poultry have expanded by a fifth, according to estimates by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Nations have typically banned meat imports from countries with known problems. For several years, British beef producers have seen exports dry up because of concerns about mad-cow disease. Several developing nations have never eradicated foot-and-mouth disease, effectively preventing them from exporting meat.

Swift reaction

But when France confirmed this week cases of foot-and-mouth, nations reacted swiftly and with more than the usual vigor. While Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Russia, and Austria enacted bans on French meat and livestock, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Norway, and the US took the extraordinary step of imposing bans on meat from the entire European Union (EU). Canada went one better, stopping imports of used farm equipment from the region.

Such moves have infuriated EU officials. They've criticized Morocco, Hungary, Slovakia, and Tunisia for shutting their borders to EU grain because of the scare. They've threatened to take the US before the World Trade Organization for disproportionate measures, since 13 of their members remain free from the outbreak.

US officials counter that the ban is precautionary and temporary. "It gives us time to examine the situation," says Jim Rogers, a spokesman for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the USDA.

The agency this week put its 1,800 animal-health inspectors - and their specially trained beagles - on "heightened alert" at major US airports and other ports of entry. Passengers found bringing in any farm product that could spread the disease could be fined up to $1,000.

Although this pan-Asian form of foot-and-mouth is powerfully contagious and has spread from India since the early 1990s, it does not harm humans or typically kill animals. It simply makes animals much less productive. Mad-cow disease, on the other hand, is not contagious but has been linked to fatalities of people who eat the infected meat.

The US may well serve as an important model for how government, private veterinarians, and farmers can prevent outbreaks of such diseases. The US has not experienced foot-and-mouth since 1929 and has never seen a case of mad-cow disease. "We have a very good infrastructure here," says Lisa Conti, Florida's state health veterinarian, based in Tallahassee.

Built-in advantages

To be sure, the US has some built-in advantages. Two oceans separate it from foot-and-mouth problems in Europe and Asia. Neither of its neighbors has been infected. And it is less susceptible to mad-cow disease because it never supported an extensive sheep industry the way Britain has. Scientists believe mad-cow disease spread through such feed.

Still, the US has taken strong preventative steps. In 1989, it banned all livestock and related products from countries with

confirmed mad-cow cases. It has followed up with bans on animal-based feed and an aggressive program to test suspect cows.

In Britain, critics argue that the nation's move to modern farming has killed local food markets and encouraged instead the long-distance transportation of animals, which has spread foot-and-mouth disease. Such an outbreak would prove even more difficult for the US, where calves typically raised in, say, Florida are shipped more than 1,000 miles to large feedlots in Texas and elsewhere to get fattened up.

The upside of industrialization

On the other hand, British authorities believe the disease was introduced not by a large corporate farm but by a small and, by some accounts, squalid hog operation in the north of England. Two brothers fed their animals leftovers that presumably included infected meat from abroad. In the US, hogs are typically fed a much more scientific diet and kept in special buildings that protect them from outside viruses.

Once introduced inside these confinement buildings, disease could quickly spread. But because so much is at stake in these specialized operations, both hog and cattle farmers usually take many precautions.

"By having large producers of cows rather than small producers of cows, there's a real economic incentive to not have your whole herd destroyed," says Alan Marcus, a professor of the history of science at Iowa State University.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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