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State guards against hoof-and-mouth epidemic

March 22, 2001
By: Ben Paynter
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - National and state agriculture officials predicted the outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease that has crippled the European farm economy would not infect Missouri's booming beef market.

Lowell Mohler, director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture, said federal and state agencies have heightened airport security and expanded producer awareness programs in an effort to guarantee the quality of Missouri beef.

"Certainly, any time we have a disease as contagious and out of control as it is Europe, we are concerned," Mohler said. "We are in a high state of readiness to head it off here."

Britain was rocked last month by its first hoof-and-mouth outbreak in 20 years. The disease has since spread like wildfire across the region, with the European Union reporting 422 cases in England, France, Northern Ireland, and the Netherlands. There have been 72 new cases reported this week.

The virus, which is easily transmitted, affects cloven-hooved animals such as cattle, swine, sheep and deer. Authorities in Europe may have to slaughter some 1 million animals because of the epidemic, according to unofficial estimates.

Mohler said Missouri primarily produces cattle, so his office has been working with the state's 69,000 cattle operations to alleviate concern.

For his part, the state veterinarian has been providing information to local veterinarians and livestock owners.

The last reported instance of hoof-and-mouth disease in the U.S. occurred in 1929. Officials slaughtered 3,600 pigs and contained the outbreak to California.

While empathetic, Mohler was also practical.

"Long term, our markets will expand across international lines," said Mohler. Missouri ranks second in the nation for beef production, according to statistics from the state agriculture department.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture "immediately increased vigil" over travelers and cargo entering the country, the port director at Lambert International Airport, Dana DeWeese, said in an interview.

"The traveling public has been very cooperative," DeWeese said.

Federal inspectors have been searching imported cargo for contaminated soil, using X-ray machines to check luggage for meat products and spraying travelers' shoes with bleach, DeWeese said.

"We feel this has been very successful," said DeWeese, who predicted the precautions would remain in place for at least three to six months based on conditions in the EU.

Eldon Cole, a regional livestock specialist, said the largest danger to the beef industry in the U.S. hinges on public perception of the epidemic. He said current perceptions of hoof-and-mouth, especially erroneous comparisons to Mad Cow disease, could stymie beef sales.

"This is not a human health threat, it is an economic production concern," Cole said. "I don't hear enough people saying this is not a threat to human health at this time."