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The International Fallout of Foot and Mouth Disease


by Austin Bay

Texas ranchers called the virus "hoof and mouth disease," the dread plague of the cattle industry.

In his first novel, "Horseman, Pass By" (better known by its movie version, "Hud"), Larry McMurtry graphically describes the grotesque but necessary slaughter of an infected herd pinned in a West Texas pit.

As McMurtry's young narrator watches, "state men" with rifles do the terrible job. "The cattle below bunched tight together, milling in a welter of dust and blood. Nothing did them any good. The man with the gun was deadly. ... The biggest old cows fell like they had been sledge-hammered; they kicked a time or two, belched blood into the dust, lay still."

In February 2001, foot and mouth disease -- or FMD, the current international term for hoof and mouth -- struck Great Britain. As of mid-May, Britain has over 1,600 confirmed cases, with nearly 2.7 million livestock destroyed in a state-directed effort to contain the epidemic.

Britain's livestock kill and burn pits reminded me of McMurtry's devastating tale. In the novel, the sick herd's eradication is the death-knell of the American West. For Britain's cattle raisers, this bout of FMD has all but destroyed their livelihoods.

McMurtry took poetic license with history. "Horseman" is set in 1954. The last Texas FMD case occurred in 1924. Mexico had an outbreak in the early '50s, Canada a minor one -- but since then North America has been free of the disease.

Not so the rest of the world. Over 200 countries report FMD.

Air transport, expanding international trade, multiplying personal contacts in an integrating global economy -- increasingly, these are characteristics of contemporary life on Earth.

For economic, political, and social advantage, people, cash and information flow more freely over borders -- but so can microbes. It's ironic: The speed of modern transport and the breadth of trade increases the threat of an ancient scourge, epidemic disease.

Obviously, more than agriculture is at risk. While Hollywood has sensationalized fear of fast-spreading plague, continent to continent infection is no fantasy. It has happened. A sick person boards a jumbo jet in Kinshasha and flies to Hong Kong. Suddenly, a Congolese disease appears in Asia.

Don't dismiss the possibility of severe political as well as economic friction generated by fears (legitimate and otherwise) of threats to agricultural and human health.

The European Union's internecine tussle over FMD in Britain and Holland is an example. Worry over FMD has put a small but interesting crimp in NATO cooperation. British and Dutch troops participating in the annual U.S. Army Roving Sands air defense exercise at Ft Bliss, Texas, scheduled for mid-June, will do so without their heavy equipment.

What's the likelihood of FMD virus on their vehicles, currently inside a ship at a Texas seaport? It's almost nil. Still, that "almost" looms large to a $6 billion annual Texas cattle industry and an FMD-free North America. Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Susan Combs asked the Pentagon, "Why take the chance?"

The Pentagon has concluded the Dutch and British troops can bring man-portable equipment when they fly to Texas. The Dutch use Patriot missiles and could train with U.S. weapons. The British use Rapier missiles, which are not in the U.S. arsenal. The Brits planned on shooting Rapiers while at Ft. Bliss. Now, they're out of luck.

Ag experts tell me innocent international tourists can carry many plant diseases. That's why customs inspectors persist in asking tourists if they visited quarantined regions. Baggage x-ray machines look for contaminated produce as well as terrorist bombs.

EU bickering over FMD may be a mild demonstration of the potential for frantic, even xenophobic reaction. Washington was in a no-win situation with the Dutch and British equipment. If FMD appeared in America, left- and right-wing conspiracy theorists would accuse the Pentagon of helping "foreign forces" spread a plague.

Isolation from the world is not an option. Fast-paced global trade is a wealth-producing reality. However, smart regulatory enforcement is absolutely essential.

A couple of years ago, an investor talked me through his time line for jet freighting Asian and South American flowers to Europe. His daily enterprise required the syncopation of a wartime military operation. One of his headaches was plant-pest inspections. He saw them as necessary, but a delay in a high-speed endeavor.

At the time, I sympathized with his annoyance. Now, as Britain battles the Texas cowman's old nemesis, hoof and mouth, I realize thorough inspections are absolutely vital to maintaining confidence in the international agricultural trading system.

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