Foot and mouth disease really is a big deal

I heard something on the news the other night that set my teeth on edge. That's not surprising, I suppose, given the recent state of the stock market, failed attempts at world peace and dire predictions of more rain for the Southwest. (I hesitate to complain about the rain, however, remembering what I would have given last August for just a sprinkle or two.)

But I digress.

What set me off was a piece on foot and mouth disease. That the malady still exists in so many parts of the world causes enough distress. And the potential, given our shrinking globe and our ability to travel so easily across and around it, for transmitting the disease across national borders, including oceans, sets off alarm bells in my head.

But that's still not what ticked me off.

A reporter stuck a microphone in the face of a traveler returning from Europe and asked how he felt about the possibility of spreading the disease into the United States. I didn't get an exact quote, but he responded with something like:

“It's really not all that big a deal; it doesn't affect humans.”

Doesn't affect humans. I'd like for him to stand in a room full of English farmers who have just seen their entire herds slaughtered and burned like so much rubbish.

I'd like for him to tell animal feed suppliers, meat packers, restaurant owners and anyone else who makes a living from the livestock industry that the disease does not affect humans.

And, best of all, I'd like to see him stand in front of a bunch of nervous Southwestern cattlemen and explain why hoof and mouth disease is “no big deal.”

Perhaps we should forgive the guy for his ignorance. Perhaps he suffers from a similar malady, foot IN mouth disease. I'll assume the ignorance theory prevails here.

Why should anyone be upset by the potential death and destruction of millions of cattle, swine, and goats? After all, we still have Kroger.Part of the man's ignorance probably resides in the fear factor that comes with BCE, mad cow disease, which can inflict humans and is fatal. Hoof and mouth can be transmitted by humans, from soil they carry from infected areas. But it doesn't cause the terrible illness associated with mad cow.

Perhaps that's what the guy meant when he said it doesn't affect humans. But it does. In just the United States, the livestock industry is a multi-billion dollar industry, employing thousands of humans and feeding millions more. Our livestock industry can not afford an outbreak of foot and mouth disease.

We've been free of FMD since 1929, but this is one of the livestock industry's worst nightmares because it spreads widely and rapidly. The economic implications are staggering, to say nothing of the emotional damage a rancher, dairyman, swine or goat farmer endures when he watches an entire herd of livestock being destroyed.

A gripping scene from the 1960s Paul Newman movie, Hud, which was based on Larry McMurtry's wonderful novel, Horseman, Pass By, showed a similar catastrophe. The disease was not FMD, perhaps brucellosis, I don't recall, but an old rancher, who had devoted his life to his cattle had to watch while his entire herd was driven into a large pit and then systematically, animal by animal, shot to death.

He was devastated, not just from the income loss, but by the horror of having his animals slaughtered.

If FMD returns to the United States, that scene will rerun time and again as livestock owners across the nation watch their dreams literally go up in huge billows of black smoke as carcasses burn and livelihoods disappear. USDA and other agencies take this threat seriously and have instituted safeguards to prevent infection. Continued vigilance will be critical.

Foot and mouth disease does affect humans. It may not inflict us with a dreadful, incurable disease, but it can take a horrible toll on an entire industry, destroy countless rural economies and devastate the people who depend on and care about the animals they raise.

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