American pigs and cattle are 'vulnerable' to deadly foot-and-mouth disease, federal government agency warns

Key Points
  • America's swine and cattle populations are vulnerable to the deadly and highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease, and "efforts to prepare for a potential outbreak could be strengthened," according to a U.S. government watchdog.
  • The Government Accountability Office suggested that "efforts to prepare for a potential outbreak could be strengthened."
  • The agency warned an outbreak in the U.S. could lead to "serious economic impacts," including putting at risk some $19 billion in exports of meats and dairy products.
A cattle farm west of Surrey, England being investigated for a foot-and-mouth outbreak in August of 2007. A bigger epidemic struck Britain's agriculture industry in 2001.
Gareth Fuller - PA Images | PA Images | Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — America's swine and cattle populations are vulnerable to the deadly and highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease, and "efforts to prepare for a potential outbreak could be strengthened," according to a U.S. government watchdog's new report.

The Government Accountability Office report said the U.S. Department of Agriculture "may not have a sufficient supply of FMD vaccine to control more than a small outbreak because of limited resources to obtain vaccine." It also said an epidemic could prove costly to the nation's livestock industry and the federal government.

Foot-and-mouth disease, or FMD, in livestock is found roughly in about two-thirds of the world, but the U.S. hasn't experienced an outbreak since the 1920s.

"The United States is vulnerable to FMD transmission, given the large size and mobility of the U.S. livestock sector," the GAO said in the report published last week. "An FMD outbreak in the United States could have serious economic impacts, in part because trade partners would likely halt all imports of U.S. livestock and livestock products until the disease was eradicated."

The agency said exports of U.S. swine, cattle and dairy products totaled more than $19 billion in 2017. It warned that those shipments after an outbreak "would likely stop or be sharply reduced. Moreover, in a widespread outbreak, the scale of federal compensation payments could be substantial."

The disease affects domestic and wild cloven-hoofed animals including cattle, swine and goats. FMD is not considered dangerous to humans but is frequently fatal to younger animals.

The 2018 Farm Bill signed into law in December by President Donald Trump included more funding for USDA's animal health and disease preparedness programs, such as money for an expanded animal vaccine bank for FMD. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a 2020 Democratic presidential contender, last year introduced the provision more animal disease funding and cited it in an op-ed piece last week talking about the Farm Bill.

Outbreaks in the past

FMD remains endemic in parts of Africa, the Middle East, South America, and Asia. The last recorded outbreak in the U.S. was recorded in 1929.

Back in 2001, an epidemic in the U.K. resulted in the killing of more than 6 million livestock and there was a smaller outbreak in 2007. Western Europe is now considered free of the debilitating disease but the 2001 outbreak cost the British industry more than $3 billion.

"USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service understands the importance of preparing for the possibility of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the United States," USDA said in a statement. "This disease would have a significant impact on our livestock industry and our farmers and ranchers."

Added the USDA: "We continue to work on our preparations and will use the GAO recommendations to help us prioritize and strengthen our efforts. We will also continue our constant effort to keep this disease from entering the U.S. in the first place."

The GAO report faulted the USDA's APHIS agency for failing to complete certain corrective actions that it said were identified multiple times, including "developing a process for prioritizing and allocating the limited supply of FMD vaccine. Because of the limited supply of vaccine and the potentially high demand for it, USDA would likely face the challenge of deciding how to allocate it in an FMD outbreak."

At the same time, the USDA faces other hurdles that could further complicate the process of controlling an epidemic.

For one, there are nearly two dozen individual strains of the virus, and the shelf life of the vaccine is five years, meaning the expired batches must be replaced routinely for them to be effective when needed. Also, there's a possibility a mutated strain of the virus may not be in the government's vaccine bank and could delay antigen production during an outbreak from 6 to 18 months.

Finally, the GAO said there's the problem of very few vaccine manufacturers in the world that have the capacity to meet U.S. requirements. It said another challenge is the lack of domestic production capacity for the vaccine since there's "a statutory prohibition against working with live FMD virus on the U.S. mainland."