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Hoping for the best but preparing for the worst

Halden Clark for Progressive Cattle Published on 25 July 2021
a secure beef supply

There are some threats to the beef industry we must never forget, even though it is painful even to consider them. One of these is foot-and-mouth disease (FMD).

FMD was last diagnosed in the U.S. in 1929 – and since then, the U.S. has been free of it. Even though it is not a current issue, there is a current effort underway to strengthen our defenses against this disease. It is a joint effort between the USDA, state governments and several universities including Iowa State and University of Nebraska – Lincoln.

One point of clarification: There is a hand, foot and mouth disease in children, but that virus is not related to FMD in cattle. This is a frequent source of confusion, but there is no link between the two diseases. I will give a brief review of the disease and then explain how you can better position your operation to weather this type of storm.

FMD virus is a serious threat both to animal health and to our export markets. Though it does not endanger human health, and beef would continue to be safe to eat, the disease takes a heavy toll on infected cattle. Fever, blisters (called vesicles) on the gums and dental pad, epithelial tissue sloughing from the tongue and blistered, painful feet are all hallmarks of the disease.

Though only approximately 1% to 5% of previously naïve adult cattle (meaning never before exposed to or vaccinated against the disease) are likely to die of the virus itself, production losses (weight gain and/or milk production) are severe and animals that survive are often chronically lame due to damage from the hoof lesions. FMD virus can infect cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and other cloven-hooved ruminant livestock and wildlife.

Currently, the U.S. is listed as “Free Without Vaccination” by the OIE, which is the World Animal Health Organization. “Free Without Vaccination” is the highest status for proving FMD freedom. “Free With Vaccination” is the lower tier of disease freedom. Below this are areas where FMD is endemic, such as parts of Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The term “endemic” means places where the disease is regularly found. In these areas, many animals carry immunity either through vaccination or through natural exposure. The OIE status ranking is something countries consider when making decisions about whether to import beef from another country.

As a review, in the United Kingdom in 2001, an FMD outbreak became a national crisis. The outbreak was an incredibly difficult experience for the farmers, veterinarians and others touched by it. Somewhere between 6.5 and 10 million animals were culled. The outbreak lasted seven months, with restrictions lasting several months longer. In the most heavily affected county in the UK, named Cumbria, 70% of farms had either partial or complete culls of susceptible livestock. The disease was first identified at a slaughter establishment in Essex on Feb. 19, 2001. It was soon learned that a farm which had sent sows to slaughter there had most likely fed pigs swill that had somehow become contaminated with FMD virus. From this farm, FMD had spread to at least 14 other farms nearby, likely by direct animal contact or fomites.

Fomites are items that travel or are carried between groups of susceptible animals and bring in contamination on surfaces. Examples would be dirty tires, soiled rubber boots or contaminated equipment. One of these farms unknowingly took sheep, which were incubating the disease, to a sale barn. From the first sale barn, some infected sheep were taken to another sale barn, and the second sale barn turned out to be the largest in the UK. There, over 20,000 sheep were exposed to FMD by being in the same facility as infected animals. This dissemination led to over 2,000 infected premises in the UK and a true crisis. After the outbreak was over, OIE and other European regulatory bodies approved meat and animal exports by Feb. 5, 2002, nearly a year after it began.

Two important things were learned through this outbreak. First, farms with carefully designed biosecurity protocols were much less likely to become infected than were farms without biosecurity plans. Second, aerosol (airborne) transmission is not as severe or as common as was thought previously. Local spread, from in-contact animals and fomites, represented a large majority of the disease spread. Plumes of virus spreading long distances, as had been feared previously, did not prove to play a significant role. This is helpful because we can get better at controlling surface contamination and animal movement, but we cannot control the wind.

Obviously, we all hope FMD will never rear its ugly head in the U.S. But that does not give us a “pass” on thinking through what we can do to minimize the damage if it does. One of the simplest things to do would be to consider designing a secure beef supply plan for your operation. A secure beef supply plan is an enhanced biosecurity plan you could immediately implement if there were ever a foreign animal disease, such as FMD, diagnosed within the U.S.

The plan involves thinking through operations at your facility, drawing a perimeter line around your main center of operation and then finding ways to get people, animals, feed and supplies on and off the facility without dragging contamination onto the farm from outside sources. Once these plans are drawn up, file them and review them from time to time. I truly hope no secure beef supply plan ever needs to be implemented in the U.S., but I believe an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Since many of us are employed at one beef operation, and have cattle of our own at home, these plans take on even more importance.

If you operate a feedlot in Nebraska, UNL is providing no-cost help this summer in developing secure beef supply plans, and you can learn more by contacting me. If you operate a cow-calf operation or are located outside of Nebraska, please see for more information. Additionally, you can find more information at the Center for Food Security and Public Health at Iowa State. end mark

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Ray Merritt.

Halden Clark, DVM, is a member of the University of Nebraska Beef Team.

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Halden Clark
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