Spread of Foot-and-Mouth Alarms California Farmers


The relentless spread of foot-and-mouth disease among livestock in Europe has stirred alarm and dredged up bitter memories in agricultural communities across California, from northern cattle country to the vast industrial dairies of Chino.

State officials estimate a broad outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, a hardy virus that spreads quickly among animals, could cause more than $13.5 billion in damage to California's livestock producers and the dairy industry, the nation's biggest.

Social turmoil could ripple far beyond the farm belt, according to a risk assessment by California agriculture officials in the late 1990s. Strict quarantines could limit travel through swaths of the state. The National Guard would likely be called out. Food prices might skyrocket.

California is given a good chance of escaping the plague this time around. But agriculture officials in the state are taking no chances.

"Absolutely we're concerned," said Michael Marsh, chief executive at Western United Dairymen, which represents 1,100 dairies in California. "If this spread over here, it would be devastating."

Such fears are rooted in historic reality.

Los Angeles County endured the nation's last outbreak of foot-and-mouth, which began at a Montebello hog ranch in 1929. More than 3,500 farm animals--cattle, pigs, goats--were slaughtered to stem the spread.

But that was nothing compared with the carnage wreaked by the disaster of 1924.

Quarantines encircled 17 counties from Napa to Orange. Oregon and other states set up border checkpoints and fumigation tents for all cars and trucks arriving from California. Arizona for a time cut off its borders to California. Some devastated ranchers turned to suicide.

Nearly 110,000 farm animals had to be killed. Wranglers drove them into broad trenches dug by steam shovels. Marksmen gathered at the rim and shot the animals dead.

By summer, the disease had invaded the Stanislaus National Forest. Hunters were hired. More than 22,000 deer suspected of carrying foot-and-mouth were killed.

Jack Reynolds lived through those days.

A third-generation rancher who still runs his herds in mountains above King City at 89, Reynolds was a preteen when the outbreak hit. He recalls the worry of his parents, who controlled two ranches spanning 22,000 acres. And he remembers the shallow disinfecting pools that cars, horses and pedestrians had to cross at the county line.

"It was right by my school, and anything that crossed the county line had to go through it," Reynolds recalled. "Everybody who had cattle was concerned."

State officials called it one of the worst economic disasters to hit California.

It could be far more catastrophic today.

With about 3 million cattle and milk cows, California's livestock population is roughly the same as in the 1920s, but the animals are kept in far more intimate quarters--crowded feedlots and mammoth dairies with more than 3,000 cows, pig and sheep herds hemmed in by development. Those are the perfect settings for a quick spread of the disease, experts say.

Though essentially harmless to humans, the disease is devastating to cloven-footed livestock, causing blisters in the mouths and feet that can leave the animals debilitated and unable to eat or even stand.

There have been eight outbreaks in the U.S. since 1870, and the plan of attack today remains much as it was in the past. Animals are slaughtered and burned or buried. In England and France, more than 170,000 animals have been killed in recent weeks. Argentina is also grappling with an outbreak of the disease, which remains endemic in parts of China, the Middle East and Africa.

The disease is extraordinarily infectious, clinging to shoes and clothes, even the tires of cars, while spreading for miles in the air. In the right environment, the virus can survive for weeks, then sweep through an entire herd.

Agriculture officials in the U.S. have taken pains since the 1920s to toughen port inspections and quarantines of animals and meat products from foreign soil. It has paid off, keeping the United States free of the disease for 72 years.

But in this age of international travel, authorities increasingly worry that a tourist could inadvertently cart foot-and-mouth, also known as FMD, to the U.S. and unwittingly infect a herd.

"With today's ease of international travel by plane, we could have a disease like FMD in less than 24 hours," said Ria de Grassi, California Farm Bureau Federation's animal health director. "We're saying to producers: If there are any suspicions, get to a vet. With this disease, hours matter."

If an outbreak occurred in the southern San Joaquin Valley, for instance, containment to a small number of dairies would be extremely difficult, according to the state's 1999 risk assessment. More than 2,000 pigs and nearly 150,000 cows would likely have to be slaughtered in the initial weeks. Other states almost certainly would be hit.

Cleanup efforts, the report concludes, would be difficult and expensive. Problems might range from finding adequate disposal space for afflicted animals to staffing cleanup crews. Balky farmers might sue rather than lose their livestock. Animal rights activists might mobilize against any widespread killing.

Export bans might stretch for years. Even after quarantines were lifted, the livestock and dairy industries would face a difficult time gearing up for business again.

"What we're seeing in the U.K. shows us how devastating this can be," said Dr. Richard Breitmeyer, the state's chief veterinarian.

In response to the threat, authorities have launched a campaign to warn owners of livestock and international travelers to take precautions. Agriculture inspectors at Los Angeles International Airport and other major U.S. destinations have heightened precautions. Shoes and other items suspected of contamination are disinfected.

One trade association, meanwhile, has advised California dairies to suspend all tours.

"The exposure is too great and the events in Europe are catastrophic," said Bob Feenstra, Milk Producers Council executive director. "We're taking every precaution."

To Gordon Rasmussen, no precaution seems too strong.

Rasmussen, still ranching at age 66 in the rolling hills of Contra Costa County, remembers the stories his father told of the plague of 1924. The family's animals escaped harm, but some neighboring ranchers were hit hard and folded.

It might not be too different today.

"It would be disastrous," he said. "If you lose your herd, it would be like taking a match to a business."

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