What is foot-and-mouth disease? Should cattle haulers worry?

by Donna Carlson, staff writer

Bert Parker, manager of Sugarland Feed Yards in Hereford, TX, says such a serious disease being afoot in the world poses a real threat to everyone, from farmers to truckers to marketers. “We are watching who comes on the place,” says Parker. “If foot-and-mouth breaks out in Texas, there will be a downswing in the economy. Not only will it affect owner-operators who haul the cattle, but will be disastrous on every level from the farmer to trucking to markets. And meat prices will soar.”

Ronnie Reiter, who hauls beef for Bradford Trucking out of Cactus, TX, says, “Some places have pans of disinfectant out and are making you wash your boots when you get out of the truck,” he noted. Other than that, Reiter doesn’t hear a lot of talk.

Frank Zummo of the Zummo Meat Co. in Chicago says he isn’t worried about foot-and-mouth at his end yet, but sees no end to the increase in beef prices. “Raw material prices are going steadily up as the United States ships domestic beef to foreign countries to make up for lack of product there. We will have to pass on price increases to our customers.”

The Department of Transportation, on the other hand, says the government is making a concerted effort to prevent the introduction of foot-and-mouth disease into the United States. On May 25, President George W. Bush said he was signing a law meant to help authorities seal U.S. borders against foot-and-mouth and “mad cow” disease. The apthovirus, usually now referred to as FMD, is a severe, highly communicable, viral disease of cattle, swine, sheep and some wildlife. Some animals recover, but the disease leaves them weak and unable to produce milk or meat.

What causes foot-and-mouth disease?
The seven strains of this extremely tenacious virus (formerly known as hoof-and-mouth) can be spread through direct contact or through the air, and can live in the environment – on clothes or hay or even in human nasal passages – for a month. Heat, chemical disinfection or lack of moisture can kill the virus. Freezing does not. Professor and extension livestock specialist Ronald Gill said there is bio-security in place at most feedlots with attention given to disinfecting trucks and limiting tours of foreign visitors.

“We are watching the borders closely too,” he says. “It’s not in the United States. We haven’t had it here since 1929, though Australia has had it (FMD) for years. South America has more cases than Europe and I think there is more chance of it crossing our border from Mexico than just springing up in our country.”

DOT Secretary Norm Mineta is asking that everyone planning trips to Europe help prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease by being informed about how the disease is transmitted and taking appropriate preventive measures. Although the disease is not considered a human health risk, humans can carry the virus on their clothing, shoes, body (particularly the throat and nasal passages) and personal items. A U.S. or global outbreak may impact the availability of meat and dairy products and thus the livelihood of owner-operators who haul the products.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that travelers to the United States:

  1. avoid farms, sale barns, stockyards, animal laboratories, packing houses, zoos, fairs or other animal facilities for five days prior to travel;
  2. launder or dry clean all clothing, outerwear and disinfect luggage, watches and laptops; and
  3. avoid contact with livestock or wildlife for five days after arrival in the United States.

What is the private sector doing to protect their businesses?
The foot-and-mouth scare is invading the tourist sector. The Colorado Dude Ranch Association is recommending its 37 members require European guests to comply with the new U.S. guidelines. Randy George, an owner of Latigo Ranch, says he has fewer than six families from Europe booked so far. “We will be sending them the guidelines and taking extra precautions,” he said. “These include avoiding contact with farm animals for 10 days before visiting the ranch.”

What animals are affected?
Cloven-hoofed livestock, such as cattle, swine, pigs, sheep, goats and wild animals such as deer, llama and camels. Elephants are also susceptible. Horses, humans and most carnivores are highly resistant. Several states are taking extra precautions this summer. Officials have canceled the World Pork Expo planned for Des Moines, IA, and at least one state is taking extra precautions to prevent foot-and-mouth from spreading. The Illinois State Fair Board plans to test every fair livestock entrant if they look suspect. If any animal is found to have the disease every animal and its means of transportation to the fair will be destroyed.

Does the U.S. government have plans in place?
On May 25, President Bush said he was signing a law meant to help authorities seal U.S. borders against foot-and-mouth and “mad cow” disease. The measure would create a federal interagency taskforce to coordinate government efforts to prevent these diseases in the United States. It also would require the USDA to submit a report telling the Congress what efforts agencies are making to control the spread of the diseases.

So far the USDA has the lead in preventing the spread of FMD and there have been no reported cases of foot-and-mouth. They have established a toll-free number to respond to questions (1-800-601-9327) and provide useful information on this disease on their web site at Information on the precautions travelers should take to prevent an outbreak in the United States is located on the USDA web site at

Isn’t there a vaccine? 
Yes, but it provides immunity for only about six months, making it very expensive to keep livestock vaccinated. Also, there are questions about whether the vaccine confers complete protection.