Protecting U.S. livestock

Beefed-up defense: Vigorous steps warranted to stop European foot-and-mouth disease at our borders.

March 28, 2001

BEAGLES sniffing out a pack of beef jerky on an airliner arriving from London. Airport inspectors seizing ham sandwiches made in Germany. Travelers treating their shoes with disinfectant.

These are signs of the times in the deadly serious battle to prevent the spread of virulent foot-and-mouth disease from Europe to the United States.

The highly contagious virus is wiping out European livestock, causing the United States and Canada to ban imports of raw meat and dairy products from those countries.

It is not panic or alarmist overreaction. These measures are a wise, necessary move to protect the $50 billion American livestock industry, which has avoided an outbreak of the scourge since 1929.

There is even ample cause to expand these controls to stop the disease at our border, given the potentially high stakes and the enormous volume of traffic between Europe and this country. Tighter inspection and quarantine are required, as is expanded U.S. scientific cooperation overseas.

Foot-and-mouth disease poses no danger to humans, but it sickens and kills cows, pigs and sheep. It is found everywhere except North America and Australia.

The long-lived virus can travel through the air, on human clothing or baggage, as well as from animal to animal. Vaccines are costly, act slowly and have limited effectiveness. Killing and burning infected animals, and adjacent herds, is the most effective solution. Britain is in the process of killing more than a half-million head of livestock, without yet halting the epidemic.

The staggering costs are not limited to farmers: Meat prices have tripled in Europe; tourism has been crimped in Ireland and Britain.

U.S. vigilance has so far protected our livestock. Mad cow disease (which can kill humans) brought a ban on British cattle imports in 1985. Last week authorities seized two Vermont herds of sheep suspected of eating contaminated feed before they were imported from Belgium.

Such strong, swift steps are sadly necessary to spare this nation from the European agony.

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