Person walking in front of an area taped off due to Foot-and-Mouth Disease outbreak Getty Images

No excuse not to be prepared for FMD outbreak

The United States frankly is not prepared for a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, yet one case can stop U.S. export markets on a dime and cripple the entire agriculture sector. That is a message livestock industry leaders want everyone to digest and take action on.

While no hog farmer wants to utter the words “foot and mouth” or even think about it, the United States frankly is not prepared for an outbreak. Yet, one case can stop U.S. export markets on a dime and cripple the entire agriculture sector. That is a message livestock industry leaders want everyone to digest and take action on.

“We are not prepared for any type of outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in this country. There is no pleasant way to look at it,” says John Weber, Iowa hog farmer and National Pork Producers Council president. “You cannot bury your way out of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. The technology is there to vaccinate your way out of it, but you have to have someone to manufacture the vaccines, and it is not there.”

While the U.S. has not had an FMD outbreak since 1929, the recent global epidemic is a harsh reminder that a foreign animal disease can happen at any time. Weber says, “There is really no excuse not to be prepared with the technology available today.”

This is not a problem just for the pork industry — it also directly impacts dairy and beef. An outbreak of FMD in the United States would have catastrophic consequences for the multibillion dollar livestock industry. FMD is a threat to economic security and infrastructure as well as animal health. “If there is a disease outbreak in this country, everyone is going to lose their markets, and you will not be able to eat your way out of the problem,” stresses Weber.

An analysis by Iowa State University economists of the impacts of an outbreak, which would immediately stop all U.S. meat exports, found over a 10-year period cumulative costs to the beef and pork industries would be $128 billion. Corn and soybean farmers would lose $44 billion and nearly $25 billion, respectively. Job losses in the beef and pork industries over a decade would top half a million, and employment throughout the economy would fall by more than 1.5 million jobs.

Background

Bobby Acord, retired administrator for USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, says past FMD outbreaks in foreign countries demonstrate that the strategy of just stamping out infected animals under the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) guidelines is impractical. “Given the size of the U.S. livestock herd and the number of carcasses that would need to be disposed of, we could not continue the policy of stamping out. We had to shift to a more realistic approach,” explains Acord.

Recent FMD outbreaks in Japan and South Korea served as wake-up calls for the United States. In 2010 and 2011, Japan and South Korea first tried to tackle the FMD endemic with a stamping-out strategy. However, after disposing of millions of cattle and swine, they switched to vaccination and strict movement controls, which halted the spread of FMD. So with the support of the U.S. livestock industry, APHIS changed its policy from killing your way out of an outbreak to the current vaccination strategy.

The actual work started after the modification in the FMD response plan. APHIS and the livestock industry quickly learned there are many challenges in planning an FMD emergency vaccination program.

The search for available FMD vaccine became quite the treasure hunt. “As we started exploring the availability of vaccine, we learned a lot,” Acord says with a sigh.

There are a limited number of companies in the world with facilities that produce FMD vaccine. These facilities are running at full capacity to produce vaccine for the countries that are currently vaccinating for FMD.

Unfortunately, the present situation is the U.S. does not have access to enough FMD vaccine to handle an outbreak beyond a minuscule, localized disease event. The U.S. is the only country in the world that maintains its own vaccine bank. But the existing vaccine bank arrangement has several problems.

Presently, APHIS manages a vaccine bank at Plum Island, N.Y. Acord explains there are currently 23 strains circulating in the world, but the U.S. FMD vaccine bank only stores the antigen for less than half those strains.

Furthermore, U.S. law prohibits live FMD virus for any reason on the U.S. mainland. So, if an outbreak occurs, and if the U.S. bank has the antigen for the outbreak strain, the antigen must be shipped to England or France to be turned into finished vaccine and shipped back to the United States. According to NPPC, the turnaround time from the onset of an outbreak until a finished vaccine is delivered to the field would be weeks for a small event and months for the number of doses needed to control a large outbreak.

In fact, Acord says, “In three weeks we would have 2.5 million doses of vaccines under that scenario. That would not vaccinate one county in North Carolina or Iowa or any other major pork-producing state. It is obvious if we are going to vaccinate, then we have to have something to vaccinate with.”

The clear-cut conclusion is that the current plan to maintain the Plum Island bank but produce the vaccine overseas is inefficient. Therefore, pork leaders are taking action, along with APHIS and agriculture livestock organizations. “It is our responsibility as leadership and technical staff to be engaged on this important issue,” says Weber.

NPPC, the National Pork Board, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and dairy industry groups commissioned James Roth, DVM and Iowa State University professor, to research what it would take to produce enough vaccine to implement APHIS’ new strategy for managing an FMD outbreak. The study revealed three critical steps need to happen to build an effective FMD response plan.

1. Offshore FMD vaccine bank

The United States will need to contract for an offshore FMD vaccine bank that would provide vaccine antigen concentrate for all strains currently circulating in the world. The antigen concentrate has a limited shelf life that, after about five years, begins to affect the potency of the finished vaccine, thus requiring an aggressive rotation of the antigen. The United States does not have the capability to handle such an aggressive rotation of antigen. Thus, the only feasible solution is to contract with a vaccine manufacturer to maintain a bank and easily rotate the antigens among its current customers, Acord explains.

2. Immediate vaccine available

For the early stages of an outbreak, 10 million vaccines doses need to be readily available. So, a contract must be in place for production capacity to meet those needs.

3. Global surge capacity

Acord says, “There is no available surge capacity to produce the volume of vaccine that would be needed in a U.S. outbreak. To labor under the idea that these manufacturers would simply give up existing current customers to manufacture for the U.S. is false hope. We have to face reality.” Therefore, a long-term contract for the surge capacity to produce an additional 40 million doses is needed.

Since all three action items require legislative action, the NPPC and other livestock organizations are undertaking the effort to advance an FMD response strategy that is realistic and reasonable. The new program will be introduced in the next farm bill.

Roth estimates the cost of the new program would be $150 million per year for five years. “It is a big number, but at the same time it is a small number if you compare it to the estimated losses to the livestock industry and the ripple effects throughout the U.S. rural economy,” states Acord.

Since the policy to change the approach to FMD response is already in place, the next step is to secure the funds to execute the plan. The goal of the legislative effort is to make sure APHIS has the funds available to contract with these companies to make this a reality. It needs to be mandatory spending, not funded through the normal appropriations, Acord explains.

To be properly prepared, there is a sense of urgency. “While we are fearful of waiting on the farm bill, it seems to be the only realistic solution at this point,” says Acord.

The issue is not about politics. It is about securing the capability of the livestock industry to produce safe food.

However, many on Capitol Hill are not aware of this issue. NPPC started the education process during its Fall Fly-In, and the organization will continue to work diligently on this issue.

Acord concludes, “Given the interest to protect our national food security, it is an issue that should garner wide bipartisan support. We simply cannot continue as we are.”

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