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Argentine Ranchers Say Cattle Infected With Virus (Update1)

By Athena Jones

Buenos Aires, Feb. 27 (Bloomberg) -- Argentine beef producers said cattle in some areas are infected with foot-and-mouth disease, even as the government maintains that a plan to vaccinate livestock is merely a precautionary measure and the U.S. has decided not to restrict beef imports.

``We have animals that are sick,'' said Dardo Chiesa, president of the Buenos Aires and La Pampa Confederation of Rural Associations. Chiesa said beef producers have confirmed cases of infected animals in the two provinces.

In northwest Buenos Aires province, ranchers have reported 3,000 to 5,000 heads of cattle infected, said Federico Galligo, president of the Rivadavia Foundation for Animal Health, part of the Rivadavia Rural Society.

Beef producers' statements contradict Argentina's Agriculture Secretary Antonio Berhongaray, who has said there have been no outbreaks of the highly contagious virus. If the virus has infected livestock, Argentina could face trouble regaining its disease free status and delay the opening of new markets for exports of its famed grass-fed beef.

Argentina lost its status as free of foot-and-mouth disease without vaccination last week when officials said the country would start vaccinating cattle against the virus in some high-risk areas in a move to protect its $6.9 billion beef industry.

Argentina's problem is the latest in a series of catastrophes that have shaken world beef markets. An outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the U.K. has led the European Union to ban U.K. meat imports to prevent the spread of the virus to a continent that is already fighting so-called mad cow disease. New cases of the fatal disease, which affects humans, have recently been reported recently in livestock in Germany, France, Italy and Spain.

Vaccination Program

Argentina now has to reapply to the foot-and-mouth commission of the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health, the standard-setting body on animal health matters for the World Trade Organization, to regain a status as free of foot-and- mouth with vaccination.

Argentina is to vaccinate 11 million head of cattle starting Thursday, said Eduardo Greco, vice president of the country's animal and food health inspection service, known as Senasa. That's about 22 percent of the country's cattle population.

``Unfortunately we are late with the vaccination plan,'' said Chiesa. In Rivadavia, the team in charge of vaccinating the animals, headed by Galligo, has already begun vaccinating. Rivadavia, a zone where cattle are brought from around the country, to be fattened before sale to slaughterhouses, is particularly susceptible to the virus.

``This is a cattle receiving zone, it's easy for the cattle to be infected here,'' said Galligo. ``There is a lot of movement and exchange of animals.''

High Risk

Producers in Rivadavia receive cattle from several areas, including the northern provinces of Formosa and Corrientes, regions considered at high-risk of the disease because they border Bolivia, Paraguay, and Brazil, none of which have been declared free of foot and mouth without vaccination.

Galligo, who also headed the local vaccination campaign begun in the early nineties as part of a nationwide effort to eradicate the disease, said producers kept quiet when the virus first appeared about two months ago in the hopes the government would implement a strategy to contain the situation. But now the problem has spread, he said. Galligo expects the vaccination program to bring the situation under control in the next 30 days.

Both the U.S. and Canada blocked Argentine beef imports in early August after cattle in northern Argentina were found carrying antibodies for the highly contagious virus, fueling fears of a new outbreak of the disease.

The U.S. reopened its market in December and Canada did the same last month after sending health officials to the country to evaluate the country's sanitary situation. The U.S. yesterday approved the vaccination plan and said it would not restrict Argentine beef imports, which are limited to 20,000 metric tons a year of fresh, boneless meat.

Argentina's Agriculture Secretary Antonio Berhongaray said the U.S. decision ''confirms that the sanitary situation of Argentina, of which we have informed all of the countries that buy Argentine beef, does not affect the export of our beef.''

Brazilian Ban

Still, Brazil last week decided to ban the import of meat with bone from Argentina after meeting with Senasa President Victor Machinea. Meat with bone made up about 3 percent of Argentine meat exports to Brazil last year, according to Marcus Pratini de Moraes, Brazil's agriculture minister.

Foot-and-mouth disease causes sores on the feet and mouth of cloven-hoofed animals and interferes with beef production. The virus, which is carried in the bones of infected animals, does not affect humans.

The issue of whether Argentine cattle are infected remains to be settled and though some provincial officials have reportedly said some Argentine cattle are infected, the federal government insists the virus is not present here.

U.S. health officials will have a chance to verify Argentina's claim. The U.S. accepted Senasa's invitation to send a commission to Argentina to evaluate the vaccination program, Argentina's agriculture department said.

-- Swissrose (, March 01, 2001

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