WASHINGTON, Oct. 5, 2016 - A catastrophic hit on the U.S. livestock industry has been a cautionary talking point as ag groups push for expanded foot-and-mouth disease preparedness, but what would a U.S. outbreak of the disease really look like?

The last outbreak of FMD in the U.S. was back in 1929, but it’s on endemic status in many countries, particularly in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. This year alone, there have been 20 cases in South Korea, according to the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health, which goes by the French acronym OIE. Aside from talk about importing beef from Argentina and Brazil, most of the FMD conversation in the U.S. has been calls from the National Pork Producers Council to boost funding for an improved vaccine bank should an FMD outbreak happen stateside.

NPPC and other livestock trade groups are concerned that an FMD outbreak in the U.S. would present an unprecedented challenge to the livestock industry, one that might be mitigated somewhat if enough animals could be vaccinated in time.

A study from 2015 was commissioned to determine what would happen in the hypothetical scenario that FMD were to escape from the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, a planned structure on the Kansas State University campus expected to be operational by 2023. That study took into account a number of potential methods of FMD transference (a tornado, for example), and found that costs could be as high as $139.5 billion. Another study had the costs as high as $187.8 billion. (Current research into FMD is conducted at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, a federal facility off the Long Island coast.)

By comparison, the 2014-2015 outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza in the poultry industry – the largest animal health disaster in U.S. history – was estimated to have economy-wide losses of $3.3 billion by the Congressional Research Service.

But there’s something to note about those FMD studies – they were regional, not national. Both take a look at similar regions stretching from Texas to South Dakota and their bordering states. That includes the majority of the cattle and hog feeding regions in the U.S., but it excludes populations like the pigs in North Carolina and dairy cattle in California and Wisconsin. So as high as the numbers might be, Kansas State University Associate Professor Dustin Pendell says they could be higher.

“There’s really no study that’s doing a nationwide (outlook),” Pendell, a co-author of both studies, told Agri-Pulse. He said as data collection and computing power improve, it’s been possible to gauge broader regional impacts, but he wasn’t aware of a study that takes every cloven-hooved animal in the country into account.

What’s more, the immediate losses wouldn’t be the total losses. As evidenced by the first occurrence of mad cow disease in the U.S. in 2003, some trade barriers are slower to dissolve than others. China only recently announced intentions to allow imports of U.S. beef almost 13 years after the detection. Pendell said both FMD studies accounted for an immediate loss of 95 percent of international trade lasting for three months after the outbreak and then trade gradually returning to pre-outbreak levels over a two-year span.

While there’s no denying the severity of the threat of FMD, there’s also no denying that a vaccine bank on par with NPPC’s goals is a pricey request. NPPC Chief Veterinarian Liz Wagstrom told reporters in September that NPPC feels the money for an expanded vaccine bank “cannot come out of existing veterinary services funds,” meaning this is a request for up to $150 million in new money.

A spokeswoman for USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service says they estimate a cost of $125 million for purchase and storage for 25 million doses of vaccine concentrate for the 10 highest priority strains of the disease at an average of 50 cents per dose. However, she noted that the concentrate has a five-year shelf life, requiring continued investment to replace expired concentrate.

In theory, the money would go toward contracting for increased vaccine production capacity and the ability to protect against more strains of the disease. NPPC President John Weber said they’re aware of 23 active FMD strains, but current U.S. vaccine stockpiles, located at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York, are good against seven strains.

On the plus side, Weber says their lobbying efforts to rally support for their funding proposal have received “little or no opposition” and NPPC hopes to add this to the next farm bill. NPPC is doing most of the lobbying on the issue now, but a livestock industry source tells Agri-Pulse that when the time comes, more organizations will join the push. 

In addition to the U.S., 66 other OIE member countries are considered free of FMD without the use of a vaccine.


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