Foot and Mouth Disease

Foot and Mouth Disease  (FMD)

Sometimes events become so dramatic, they force us to reevaluate our actions. The outbreak of foot and mouth disease (FMD) in Britain in March 2001 and the Governments 'stamping-out' policies have resulted in the mass slaughter and burning of cadavers of cloven-hoofed animals. The action is the attempt to stop the spreading of the virus by eradicating it without using vaccination to protect healthy animals. This way,  the highly contagious virus can only be stopped by killing also healthy animals within a certain radius of an infected farm (on March 26 set at 2 miles). 

Viral particles as seen 
by electron microscopy

The reaction clearly demonstrates a catastrophic outbreak of a disease threatening something vital. It may come as a surprise to many of us not involved in agribusiness that this vital object is international trade, i.e., export restrictions on meat and livestock for countries that are not officially FMD-free. The first thing that comes to mind while watching thousands of cadavers burning is why animals are not being protected by vaccination - which is available - instead of killing infected and healthy animals. 

The scope of the stamping out procedure rises indeed the ethical question of why thousands (and currently the  number is reaching close to one million causing the British government to have a new look at vaccination; note added March 28 the government started vaccination with the approval of the European Union) animals should be sacrificed in the name of international trade if immune protection is readily available. The burning is a choice guided by international trade rules (most notably GATT, the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs and guidelines in Chapter 2.1.1. of the International Animal Health Code) that allow protectionist measures of FMD-free countries against non FMD-free countries. Britain does not want to loose its FMD-free status. To achieve this it is willing to destroy perfectly good meat. 

There is of course an irony in all of this because these cows, pigs, and sheep are eventually slaughtered for the benefit of human meat consumption. So why should one rise an ethical question about premature death of animals who would be sacrificed anyway? It is questions like these that need to be answered independent of the real issues on economic consequences and how to avoid severe financial losses for British farmers. 

Ethical questions deal with our actions with someone else paying the price. Here the price for economic trade rules is paid for by animals. The British lesson will be important for the US. As long as an FMD-free status can be maintained the GATT rules are a great way to protect American farmers from competitors. Yet by avoiding vaccination American ranches are sitting ducks for the virus and an outbreak seems a matter of time. If FMD were a health issue worldwide eradication of the virus would be a priority for industrialized nations. It worked for polio*, it can work for foot and mouth disease. If eradication proofs elusive and too expensive, why not go for world wide vaccination? Such a shift in global farming policy would also make for good economic policy toward developing nations. Cash and debt-relieve alone no longer guarantee solutions for strong economic development around the globe. Cash infusions need to be complemented by eliminating protectionist trade barriers. If Americans were sincere about helping developing countries to become economically more independent, we would vaccinate our cows, let them sell their meat  at competitive prices (as long at it is safe to eat), and could at this very moment help saving thousands of healthy animals from being burned in the name of protectionism. 

*Polio is a virus of the same family (picornoviridae) as foot-and-mouth virus. Polio infects only humans and causes paralysis. The virus was declared almost eradicated by the World Health Organization (WHO). Ten years after the Polio Eradication Initiative was launched, only around 30 children suffer from polio each day (August 2000, WHO) down from 1,000 in 1990. 
Quotes and Links on FMD

Comprehensive information on FMD from the world organization for animal health (OIE).

British Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food Q&A:

” Q How is the disease controlled?
The preferred method of control is a policy of slaughter of infected animals and those animals exposed to infection. Movement restrictions are also put into place to help to contain the disease. The European Union has a policy of non-vaccination except in extreme circumstances. This is because there are trade implications to vaccinating which would make this option unacceptable. However EU countries including the UK have access to an international bank of FMD vaccine.”

“Q Can FMD be cured?
There is no cure. It usually runs its course in 2 or 3 weeks after which the great majority of animals recover naturally. The justification of the slaughter policy is that widespread disease throughout the country would be economically disastrous due to the effects already noted above.”

US Department of Agriculture (USDA):
” While the disease is widespread around the world, North America, Central America, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and some countries in Europe are considered free of FMD. Various types of FMD virus have been identified in Africa, South America, Asia, and part of Europe.  “
European Commission for the Control of Foot-and-Mouth Disease
“To eradicate the disease a “stamping out” policy can be applied. This involves quarantine, movement restrictions and slaughter and disposal of all affected an in-contact livestock on affected premises followed by cleaning and disinfection. Inactivated vaccines have been successfully used in many parts of the world. Although protected against disease, vaccinated animals are not totally resistant and can still become infected and shed virus. Resistance falls fairly quickly, so animals must be revaccinated at regular intervals (4-6 months) to maintain immunity.”

The Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at  Iowa State University; a general paper on Animal Disease Outbreaks and Their Impacts on Trade (includes FMD and mad cow disease)

The following is an excerpt from a student thesis from Western College of Veterinary Medicine, Alberta, Canada, February 2000; 

“General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) agreement reduces the options (i.e. tariffs) a country may use for controlling imports yet it allows nations to use trade barriers to protect themselves against animal and plant health and safety risks (13) Although these regulations are not to be misused as disguised protectionism it is quite difficult to determine whether a particular barrier reflects a health concern or is disguised protectionism”
[P.Wiebe, L.Fritz, and K.Ball, Class of 2002 for Veterinary Virology Western College of Veterinary Medicine, February 2000]

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