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Foot-and-mouth red alert

California ups vigilance to protect dairy and livestock, its top agricultural industries

Eric Brazil, Chronicle Staff Writer Friday, May 4, 2001 2001 San Francisco Chronicle


Tulare -- California has not had to battle foot-and-mouth disease for 72 years, but the outbreak in Britain, which has caused the destruction of more than a million animals, has put the state's livestock industry on a war footing.

"We're treating this animal health emergency just like we would a fire or a flood," said state veterinarian Dr. Richard E. Breitmeyer, the commanding general of the multi-agency state-federal task force assembled to repel and, if necessary, vanquish the disease.

Foot-and-mouth disease is the most economically damaging livestock disease in the world. It is also "the most contagious disease we know of, whether in animals or humans," according to Dr. Alfonso Torres, deputy administrator of veterinary services for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The disease is almost always fatal to young livestock, and while adult animals tend to survive, their ability to put on weight and produce milk declines so sharply as to detroy their economic value.

Dairying and livestock is California's No. 1 agricultural industry, and a 1998 study by the Department of Food and Agriculture concluded that a foot-and- mouth disease outbreak would cost the state $6 billion or more and ruin its $525 million dairy and beef export market.

Some 400 state and national animal health experts, dairy and livestock industry leaders gathered last week in Tulare for a symposium to review the current state of readiness for dealing with foot and mouth disease. Their conclusion: So far, good, but it's no time to relax vigilance.

"It's not by dumb luck that the U.S. has kept (the disease) out of this country for 70 years," said Dr. Dorothy Davidson-York, a state veterinarian who recently returned from Britain, where she worked at livestock farms examining cows, hogs and sheep for the disease.

If the disease should appear in U.S. livestock, the immediate response should be "cut deep, cut fast, cut your losses and get the hell out of there," Davidson-York said.

The United States is one of just five nations in the world free of foot-and- mouth disease. Canada, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand are the other four. Torres said that foot-and-mouth disease currently afflicts livestock herds in 10 countries.

Strict controls on the importation of foreign animals and animal products is "80 to 90 percent of the protection" afforded the United States from foot- and-mouth disease, Torres said. Preventive measures also include decontamination and disposal of foreign garbage at ports of entry, and what he called "a strong animal health infrastructure."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has beefed up its border, airport and port of entry surveillance in response to bovine spongiform encephalopathy ("mad cow disease") as well as foot-and-mouth disease on the continent.

Foot-and-mouth disease is so contagious that if one animal in a herd contracts it, all will, and experience has shown that the most effective means of eradicating the disease is killing all livestock in the herd and those nearby, Torres said. "It's a dirty business," he said. The animals are killed with a captive bolt fired into the head, a device used in slaughterhouses.

In the 1929 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in California, 953 herds were afflicted and 113,446 animals killed. At that time, cattle were more widely dispersed, and because of the concentration of animals in feedlots and dairies these days -- Tulare County alone has 340,000 dairy cattle -- the toll would probably be higher if a new outbreak occurred, experts believe.

A vaccine exists for foot-and-mouth disease, but it is only partially effective and does not prevent animals from becoming carriers of the disease. Besides, Torres said, there are seven strains of the disease, with 60 sub- types, and "vaccinations must be type specific," he said.

"Once you go into vaccination, you're almost in a defeatist mode," said Tulare veterinarian Dr. Ed Henry.

California's foot-and-mouth disease response team includes representatives of the Office of Emergency Services, the departments of Health and Fish and Game, the Environmental Protection Agency, Caltrans and the National Guard. Its incident command system will be the same as that which has been employed for many years by the U.S. Forest Service.

Davidson-York said that her experiences in Britain convinced her that decisions on quarantining and when to kill livestock, as well as how to dispose of them, should be made on the local level. "Local response is critical," she said. In Britain, "politics affected the decision-making and eroded public confidence."

Livestock owners who are required to kill their animals during a foot-and- mouth disease outbreak will be compensated at fair market value, Torres said. There will be no compensation for lost opportunities, he said, and businesses such as ice cream factories would be out of luck if their milk supply is cut off.

While the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been adding veterinarians and technicians to ports of entry to inspect for and exclude foreign animal diseases, it has a problem at San Francisco International Airport.

Helen R. Wright, the department's plant health director, said the cost of living is so high in the San Francisco area that it has been unable to recruit all the personnel it is authorized to hire. "We're still 30 short, so we're looking at raises and bonuses," she said.

E-mail Eric Brazil at

-- Martin Thompson (, May 04, 2001


-- L. Hunter Cassells (, May 04, 2001.

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