TOPICS > Health

Livestock Plague

March 14, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: And for more we’re joined by Dr. Alfonso Torres, the Department of Agriculture’s chief veterinary officer and deputy administrator for animal and plant health inspection services. And Gerry Kiely, the agricultural counselor for the European Union delegation in Washington.

Well, Dr. Torres, there are now new screens in American ports of entry; new warnings to travelers; a ban on a whole new list of products; why is it so important to put up this high a wall?

ALFONSO TORRES: Well, Ray, we have had a high level of awareness about foot-and-mouth disease since we had the last case in the United States in 1929. We’ve been free of the disease for 70 years. At any point in time, in any part of world, in two thirds of the world affected by foot-and-mouth disease, there is an outbreak. What we are seeing now is more awareness about foot-and-mouth disease because the outbreak is affecting the United Kingdom and now France. But we have, as we speak, an outbreak in Argentina, an outbreak in Mongolia and we don’t hear much about those. So these are common daily risks for us – outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease around the world.

RAY SUAREZ: But there have been very limited confirmations of cases in Europe; why impose a ban on all 15 members of the European Union?

ALFONSO TORRES: The way that the European Union has worked recently is removing the barriers between countries for moving of animals. So animals can move within the European Union from farm to farm, but there’s no, for example, France couldn’t stop the movement of animals coming from the United Kingdom because it was in the territory of France. The European Union is a conglomerate of several countries, but they’re treated as a block. So we’re very concerned that movement of animals prior to the restrictions in place now may have moved infected animals and potentially contaminated animals to other countries — and that’s why we want to take precautions in banning any importation of animals or animals products from any member country in the European Union for the period of two weeks. During this time we’ll see what happens in the European Union, whether they have more cases or not, and then we’ll adjust our restrictions pending that information.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Gerry Kiely, given the ease of transmission and the tremendous risks involved, is this a proportionate response?

GERRY KIELY: While we recognize the right of the U.S. to take the measures it considers necessary, we believe the measure is disproportionate. It’s recognized internationally that you take a regionalized approach to controlling the disease. We have never imposed restrictions in terms of controlling disease to the extent that we have imposed in this case. We took immediate action in the case of the U.K.; I think it’s worth pointing out that the disease, which has developed in France, was as a result of exports, which took place prior to the disease being discovered in the UK It does seem to have been contained on the continent; only the next few days will tell that. But we believe that the U.S. has gone a bit too far in the measures it has imposed. We have 13 countries in the E.U. where no cases have been found whatsoever. The surveillance and vigilance on the part of the authorities in the different member states is such that any suspect case, the herd and the area is closed off — of course that comes into the media. And the impression is given is that there are suspect cases, or the infection is all over Europe in the media, whereas the reality is it’s just that we’re searching and being very careful and very prudent and following up on every case. The reality is there is only one case outside of the UK.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let’s look at some of these categories: live animals, fresh-killed animals, frozen meat; animal extract products, bone-related products. Is there really a lot of exportation of those items to the United States?

GERRY KIELY: Well, if you take just pig meat on its own, fresh and frozen, it amounts to about $400 million a year. And the point we have been making to the U.S. administration, it takes three weeks to ship pig meat product from let’s say Denmark to the United States. The incubation period for the disease is two weeks. It takes another week to collect and slaughter and pack and prepare the carcasses. So it should be possible to allow the exports to continue. You will know whether or not that country has had a case of the disease long before the product arrives in the U.S. So it’s actually not necessary to ban the exports from all of these countries. It should be possible to allow the trade to take place and apply restrictions in the event of the disease developing in the region or in the country concerned.

RAY SUAREZ: If the barriers do remain in place as imposed by the Department of Agriculture here in the United States, how long until the E.U. can look around its member countries, do the necessary testing and screening, and say to the United States, I think we’ve got it contained, under control, and say that with relative assurance?

GERRY KIELY: I think the next few days are going to tell a lot in terms of the situation on continental Europe. We have to see whether or not it has spread any further, for example, in France, but we have — the French government took very… imposed very stringent measures from the first moment the disease was discovered in the UK It slaughtered thousands of animals which have been exported from the UK; thousands of animals in farms around those, so they have moved in advance of discovering the disease, and we would hope that action has prevented the spread of disease beyond this one isolated case. But I think that the next few days should tell a lot in terms of the extent to which it has gone on to continental Europe, if at all.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Torres, what does the United States Department of Agriculture need to see from the European Union before that ban is lifted?

ALFONSO TORRES: Well, I should point out, also, that we’re not the only country that put in restrictions; Canada, Australia and New Zealand and — even some European member countries have put restrictions of moving animals within the European Union. So it will take some evidence that the disease was contained in France and there is no other case of foot-and-mouth disease in any other part of the European Union. Because the disease has a slow incubation period, that means it is very clinically evident that we should know if they have managed to contain the outbreak to France, to continental E.U.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, might there be some refinement in order? I mean, is there a difference between seeing a loading dock with a sheep coming down the gangplank as opposed to a salami in a grocery store?

ALFONSO TORRES: Certainly. Now, the restrictions that we’re putting in place because of foot-and-mouth disease are on top… we already have to have a lot of restrictions on animals and meat because of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, BSE, mad cow disease. Also there are some countries in the European Union that have classical swine fever; because of that we are not getting any pork products. So this is on top of that, so the net additional effect of the restrictions for foot-and-mouth disease is not as great as the European Union would be free of all the diseases as far as we’re concerned.

RAY SUAREZ: Just to be clear on this, the attempt is really to protect an industry in the United States, right, not people, because people don’t get it?

ALFONSO TORRES: That’s correct. Foot-and-mouth disease will not infect people. Will not affect people. We are concerned about protecting our livestock industries: Cattle, swine, sheep.

RAY SUAREZ: And how long until you have some confidence that they’ve got it under control in Europe?

ALFONSO TORRES: As Mr. Kiely said, we have to wait for the next two weeks to see what happens.

RAY SUAREZ: But then it would be immediately reviewed or you would need some evidence? How do we figure out when it’s over?

ALFONSO TORRES: We’ll be in constant communication with the European Union, our colleagues there. We’re going to be reviewing, we have people in the European Union evaluating what happens. We have 20 people working with the United Kingdom… we’re sending another 20. We’re prepared to send other teams to evaluate what is happening in the European Union and based on that and based on the information provided, we’ll adjust our restrictions.

RAY SUAREZ: Gerry Kiely, the press reports say this outbreak began in England. Now if the disease wasn’t there to begin with, how does it start there?

GERRY KIELY: Well, we believe that it started from the import of some meat products or whatever, illegally imported. The popular opinion is it was transmitted through waste from a restaurant, which is fed to animals. This is still being researched, but yes, it had to be imported. The E.U. Has been free of foot-and-mouth disease for more than ten years from this, and even for the previous ten years there were only isolated cases. This is the reality of globalized market as we trade — it’s inevitable we’ll import diseases. But everything has to be proportionate. You don’t ban trade just because there is a disease. You work with your trading partners to ensure that on the one hand the disease is contained while at the same time trade can take place. We would hope that the U.S. measure, which was put in place yesterday is very temporary. We hope that we don’t have to wait for two weeks for it to be relaxed. I think we can move back to a regionalized approach.

RAY SUAREZ: Now has farming in Europe changed in any ways in the recent generation that makes European herds more vulnerable to a disease like this? Are they kept, sold, traded, raised in different ways that means something like foot-and-mouth disease can zip through a population?

GERRY KIELY: Well, there are those arguing this is a result of intensive farming. But if you look back through history and if you look at countries today who have extensive farming, there was more foot-and-mouth disease in the E.U. when we had very extensive farming throughout the E.U. There is more foot-and-mouth in countries today who have very extensive farming. It’s not linked to a type of farming. But of course, as animals are moved more and more throughout E.U. or globally, the risk is greater that disease will be transmitted. But that’s why we have all of these restrictions not just at E.U. level, but agreed international standards and agreed international certification by veterinarians to avoid the spread of disease. But accidents will happen.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Dr. Torres, can the United States say with any level confidence at this point that this can be kept out?

ALFONSO TORRES: We have kept it away 70 years and we will continue to do our best to keep it away. This could happen? Yes, it could happen. We hope that with the measures that we have in place for so many years, our restrictions on import of animals and the training that we have of people and the response that we could mount in case of an outbreak, that first we can prevent and if it happens here, then we can control it very quickly.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Alfonso Torres, Gerry Kiely, thank you both.