KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Foot and mouth disease is so highly contagious that it can be spread on a gentle breeze or the tires of farm machinery.
The disease, which affects cattle and other hoofed animals, was eradicated in the U.S. more than 80 years ago. But a government proposal to import fresh beef from Brazil, where the disease is still active, has ignited fears of a new epidemic that could cost the U.S. cattle industry billions of dollars.
The idea is “ludicrous,” South Dakota rancher Tracy Trask wrote on a government website where the proposal was posted. “Have you lost your freakin’ minds? What would be the economic benefit that would outweigh the decimation of the cattle industry in this country?”
The proposal has united factions within the U.S. beef industry that rarely agree on anything. Of the more than 500 comments posted on the website as of Tuesday, nearly all are negative.
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The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, whose members include large beef packers that could benefit from the proposal, says it shares those concerns. The group, which opposes such imports as long as foot and mouth remains a problem in Brazil, has asked the government for “a potload of documents” on the proposal, said Colin Woodall, the association’s vice president for government affairs.
The proposal, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, showed up on the agency’s website Dec. 23. The agency said in the proposal that it would limit imports to beef from Brazilian states that have had no recent cases of foot and mouth disease.
“We are aware of the concerns of ranchers,” a spokeswoman told The Kansas City Star. “USDA bases its import decisions on science and will continue to protect the health of U.S. agriculture through appropriate importation eligibility requirements.”
Officials said they based their assessment that imports would not reignite the disease here at least in part on information provided by Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply, and on site visits by U.S. experts in Brazil.
“We concluded that Brazil has infrastructure and emergency-response capabilities adequate to effectively contain and eradicate FMD in the event of an outbreak and to comply with U.S. import restrictions on products from affected areas,” USDA said in the proposal.
The Brazilian government requested the U.S. conduct a review of import restrictions after the two nations announced they would work to lift trade barriers between them.
The USDA originally closed public comments on the proposal weeks ago, but it reopened the period after the proposal was met with swift and negative reactions.
Among the comments:
“US beef producers cannot afford the unbelievable risk of importing beef from a country with known FMD. We eliminated it — don’t haul it back in!”
Eight U.S. senators, including Kansas Republicans Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, wrote Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack last month to request a 60-day extension of the public-comment period, saying they were “concerned about the possible risk of Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) being brought into the United States.”
USDA officials extended the comment period until April 22, after which they could amend or withdraw the proposal.
The U.S. had nine outbreaks of the viral disease between 1870 and 1929, the most serious in 1914, infecting 170,000 cattle, sheep and swine in 3,500 herds.
A 1924 outbreak required the slaughter and disposal of 109,000 farm animals and an estimated 22,000 deer. The last outbreak, in 1929, started in hogs that had eaten infected meat scraps thrown out by a tourist steamship carrying meat from Argentina.
Foot and mouth today remains one of the most economically damaging diseases in the world, with scores of countries still working to eradicate it.
Humans do not contract the disease, but they can carry the virus in their nostrils and on their clothing and pass it on to animals. Its effects are devastating to livestock, causing high fevers, excessive slobbering, lameness and, in some cases, death.
And the disease can survive in fresh beef from infected animals, said Bob Larson, a veterinarian and professor at Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
It could possibly spread from there to live animals here, he said. Although that would require a series of unlikely events to occur, it’s not impossible, he added.
“It is probably a pretty small risk,” Larson said, “but the question people are asking is, is that an appropriate amount of risk for the trade benefits we would receive?”
Juergen Richt, a veterinary microbiologist at Kansas State, agrees that if infection from Brazilian meat were to reach a susceptible animal in the U.S., “yes, we will have a problem.”
If that occurred, Richt said, the United States would quickly be designated as a foot-and-mouth-positive country and would have to stop exporting meat, costing the domestic meat industry billions of dollars.
Richt compared the effects of a potential outbreak of foot and mouth here to a 2003 incident in which one Washington state cow was found to have bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or “mad-cow disease.”
That incident immediately closed more than 50 countries to U.S. beef imports and cost the cattle industry billions of dollars.
In the end, said Richt, foot and mouth disease “is one of the most contagious agents in the animal kingdom.”
Richt, who also directs the Department of Homeland Security’s Center of Excellence for Emerging and Zoonotic Animal Diseases at Kansas State University, said the disease is so efficient that U.S. officials are aware of its potential as a weapon of terrorism.
Some think importing fresh beef from Brazil could shore up sagging U.S. supplies and help drive down sky-high beef prices in the U.S.
“There are clear economic signals” to pursue importing more beef, said Glynn Tonsor, an agricultural economist at Kansas State.
However, the amount anticipated by the Brazilian proposal, at least at this point, is minuscule.
The USDA says it anticipates somewhere between 20,000 and 65,000 metric tons of Brazilian beef would come into the U.S. — less than a 1 percent increase in total U.S. beef imports.