“It’s not a question of if; it’s a question of when,” says Dr. Larry Delver.
Whether you’re a grower of food, a processor or marketer of food, or just someone who enjoys eating it, that one short sentence should make you more than a little afraid. The ‘it’ in question is an outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD). As Delver, a retired Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) Export Program Supervisor (Western Region) and District Veterinarian, explains, an outbreak would be devastating not only to the Canadian agriculture industry, but to the country as a whole.
“About 20 years ago, a study was done saying a FMD outbreak would have an immediate cost (to Canada) of $10B,” says Delver. “Today, I’d say double that number and double it again. And, (the study also said) it would result in a loss in total growth domestic product of 15 percent forever. No matter who you are, your standard of living in Canada would drop.”
FMD is an infectious viral disease that affects cloven-hoofed animals (including cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, and their wild relatives). Though it only kills the very youngest and weakest individuals and is not a threat to humans, it is very contagious, it is difficult to combat because it exists in multiple strains, and it is absolutely devastating to livestock industries.
Canada has been free of FMD since 1953. Other countries have not been so lucky. An outbreak in three cows in Japan in 2007 initiated the mass slaughter of more than a quarter of a million cattle. A larger outbreak in England in 2001 resulted in a cull of 3.5 million sheep, cows and pigs. Currently, FMD is active in both the livestock and wildlife populations in Russia and many Asian countries (including Vietnam, Mongolia, Myanmar, and North and South Korea). The merest whisper of FMD outbreak causes export borders to slam shut for the long-term.
In case you think the fact that Canada has been disease-free for six decades means that the likelihood of an outbreak here is low, consider some sobering facts.
1) Prior to 9/11, the CFIA had some authority at Canadian borders to implement disease prevention tools. Travelers to foreign countries with known disease outbreaks stepped through disease killing footbaths and were expected to answer multiple questions about their disease carrying risk level. Following 9/11, CFIA’s authority was limited to commodities and Canadian Border Services took responsibility for travelers. Rather than increasing bio-security, this change drastically decreased our safety, says Delver.
Not only are we very thin in terms of staffing at the border, policies and priorities have changed, making us very vulnerable. “There are two or three different FMD strains operating in Asia at the moment and we have a tremendous number of people flying across the Pacific,” says Delver. “As an example, we’ve just recently had people on an (agricultural) tour of Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia. These people were in very close contact with farmers and their (possibly diseased) animals. Coming home to Canada, they said there’s nothing in terms of disease prevention: You walk through the airport as though you’ve just been to Seattle.”
2) Transport Canada reports that more than four million shipping containers entered Canada in 2005 (the most recent year of statistics available) carrying 11.32 percent of all Canadian imports. The vast majority were inspected by paper manifest, as Canadian Border Services personnel could not possibly hope to open, unpack and physically check even a tiny fraction of the containers. The majority are perfectly legitimate and legal. The ones that are not are a major concern.
Canada’s last outbreak of FMD was caused by a farm labourer from Germany who entered Canada carrying a single infected sausage. More recently, Canadian Border Services intercepted a shipment of dried mushrooms that hid 50 cases of fresh ham, shipped directly from a country with a virulent and on-going FMD outbreak. FMD could be entering the country right now, and there is little we can do to stop it.
“We can’t afford to have (a FMD outbreak) happen. We have to take precautions,” says Delver. “They’re doing a lousy job at the border, so that means people who are taking care of livestock have to be more vigilant.”
So, what can you as a primary producer do to protect yourself?
Know that you are your farm’s only real line of defense. There are simple things that you can do that are both common sense and effective. The more livestock producers follow these simple guidelines, the more effective industry-wide disease prevention will be.
Follow the example of large scale agricultural operations, which drastically limit contact between livestock and visitors. Though it’s not realistic for a rancher to expect visitors to shower in and shower out, it’s more than reasonable for you to ask basic questions regarding risk to any on-farm visitors, and to make informed decisions about who you allow on-site. As Delver says: “If someone says ‘I’ve got a friend from China who wants to see your feedlot’, send them a picture.”
Keep yourself informed about disease outbreaks and risk around the world. FMD is a scary possibility, but it’s certainly not the only disease that could devastate our livestock industry. The CFIA offers good information on bio-security and outbreak prevention here:
Finally, be ultra-vigilant. In Canada, we have no vesicular (blister-causing) diseases. Therefore, if your animals have mouth, udder or foot blisters, they’ll either be suffering from a reaction to a plant or toxin, or from a FMD-type of imported disease. Contact your District Vet immediately.
“Disease detection lays with the farmer now. It’s not (farmers’) responsibility to keep the disease out of the country, but they are the guys who suffer the most once it gets in. Once it’s in, they are the front line,” says Delver.