The director of the only U.S. lab that studies and tests for foot-and-mouth disease said Tuesday that the chances of an outbreak somewhere in the U.S. are “quite great,” given the amount people travel between the U.S. and Britain.
“It’s only through the diligence of the people at the various ports of entry that we’ve been able to keep it out. I’ll have to add also luck,” said David Huxsoll, director of the Agriculture Department’s Plum Island laboratory.
Foot-and-mouth disease is harmless to humans but has devastated livestock in Britain because herds are destroyed to prevent its spread. The disease is common throughout most of the world, including South America, but has not been found in the United States since 1929.
The department has banned imports of livestock and raw meat from the European Union and has increased inspections of incoming airline passengers.
“We are doing everything we can to make sure it doesn’t come into this country,” Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said at an agricultural policy conference Tuesday.
More than 16 million people arrive in the United States annually on flights from Britain. About 2 percent have items that could carry the virus, such as meat and cheese, according to an Agriculture Department survey in 1999. A much smaller number — 22 of the nearly 21,000 passengers surveyed — visit a farm or ranch after arriving here.
If the virus has reached the United States already, it could have been in the country for only 24 to 48 hours, Huxsoll said, speaking to reporters at the New York lab.
“Signs for the disease would appear quite quickly, and we have veterinarians … that are extremely alert and sensitive to the appearance to those kind of lesions and it would get reported very quickly,” he said.
Plum Island would be the first to know of an outbreak because it tests tissue samples sent in by veterinarians from suspect cases.
USDA, meanwhile, has asked a variety of federal agencies, including the departments of Defense and Interior, to help prepare for an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.
“We have adequate resources” to keep the disease out of the United States, “but we are going to continue to look at the systems that are in place,” USDA spokesman Kevin Herglotz said.
Representatives of various departments and agencies, which also included the Federal Emergency Management Agency, conducted a tabletop exercise last week to test their ability to respond to a worst-case scenario in which the disease broke out in Iowa and spread to three other states. It would have required 50,000 people, including military personnel, to contain the disease.
“In the worst-case scenario, all the agencies saw that it was overwhelming. I don’t think this was a surprise,” Herglotz said.
USDA asked the departments and agencies to identify the resources that would be available to combat an outbreak.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is making preparations to coordinate the federal response to an outbreak in much the same way it responds to hurricanes and other natural disasters, said FEMA spokeswoman Holly Harrington. “We have the authority to ask other federal agencies to help respond,” she said.
The department organized a more extensive exercise last fall involving Canada and Mexico that included simulated outbreaks in south Texas and Canada.