It has been some time since I have been focused on Foot and Mouth Disease, a virus affecting hoofed stock, including livestock, considered the most infectious virus on the planet.

During and after the 2001 FMD Outbreak in the United Kingdom most animal health officials, myself included, were focused on preventing the importation of this devastating virus into the United States.

Images such as these remain hauntingly vivid.


fmdfmd poster

While discussions about agroterrorism [1] have moved to the back burner, the global spread of infectious diseases remains a huge concern, to those involved with both animal agriculture and companion animal industries.

In the September 15, 2015 publication of Livestock Market Digest, Lee Pitts described concerns about USDA’s proposal to lift a ban on beef importations from Argentina and Brazil, stating that:

USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services could be unleashing an even bigger disaster [than EPA’s recent debacle on the Animas River] by allowing fresh beef to be imported into this country from two countries with FMD.

It is important to remember how vulnerable we are to the global spread of infectious disease, and the to keep in mind the direct and indirect effects such outbreaks have on animal and human health, the livelihood of those working with animals, and the effect on US and global markets.

In 2000, we exported $51 billion in agricultural commodities from the US.

According to David Halvorson, as he said in The Economics of Avian Influenza Control:

In 1999-2000 an outbreak of H7N1 HPAI in Italy resulted in $112 million in compensation for destroyed birds, but it was estimated that indirect costs exceeded $400 million for a total cost of over $512 million.

The US poultry population at risk from avian influenza outbreaks was described on USDA’s website:

The most recent Census of Agriculture reported 233,770 poultry farms in the United States in 2012. In 2014, the U.S. poultry industry produced 8.54 billion broilers, 99.8 billion eggs, and 238 million turkeys. The combined value of production from broilers, eggs, turkeys, and the value of sales from chickens in 2014 was $48.3 billion, up 9 percent from $44.4 billion in 2013.

The impact of the spring 2015 avian influenza outbreak in many parts of the U.S. has been devastating, as reported by Erika Fry.

It’s the worst avian flu outbreak in U.S. history, and its impact is spreading: Egg prices have soared, and food companies, including Hormel and Post Holdings, have warned of likely declines in sales. The cost of dead poultry stands at $191 million; the total economic damage of the outbreak in Iowa alone is estimated at $957 million.

As farmers, USDA and state agencies are gearing up to prepare for the next round of flu season, it is important to keep in mind the many other potential pathogens that could present a risk to our animal (and by extension) human populations.

Of 1700 known pathogens 49% are zoonotic[2] and 76% of 156 emerging diseases are zoonotic

Notably, animals may be sentinels for the introduction of diseases, like we observed when West Nile virus first infected birds in this hemisphere, before infecting humans.

Keeping our livestock and other animals healthy is not only important to the health of those animals, but it also helps protect humans other animal populations, and preserves our communities and livelihoods, so those few still involved in agriculture can continue to provide healthy wholesome food for the rest of us.

[1]Agroterrorism is defined as the “intentional release of a virus, bacteria, or toxin upon a population with the purpose of causing wide scale illness or death in livestock or plants and resulting in economic instability”. Robert A. Wilson, MD LTC, CFS, NCANG, MC.

[2] Zooonotic means a pathogen may be spread from animals to humans and vice versa.