American farmers step up foot-and-mouth precautions


WASHINGTON, Reuters

Some U.S. dairy producers are barring European visitors from their farms in the wake of comments by federal officials that have fanned fears the highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease could strike in the United States, a U.S. dairy group said on Wednesday.

The Northeast Dairy Producers Association, representing producers in seven states including New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont, said most of its 125 members were closing off their farms to anyone who visited Europe in the past several months because of foot-and-mouth fears.

Some farmers have also discontinued tours and were restricting other “non-essential visitors” from their farms.

A spokesman for the group said the farmers’ actions were a result of comments by federal officials regarding the possibility the livestock disease could strike in the United States.

The disease cripples pigs, cattle, sheep and goats for months, and sharply reduces milk and meat production. The virus, which rarely endangers humans, is easily spread by shoes, farm equipment and even the wind.

Last month, the United States stepped up inspection at international airports to prevent European visitors from carrying foot-and-mouth into the country after the disease jumped from Britain into France.

Washington also has banned imports of live animals, raw meat products, used farm equipment and some dairy products from the European Union.

Foot-and-mouth disease has since been spread to the Netherlands, France and Ireland. Argentina, Saudi Arabia and Taiwan have also reported recent foot-and-mouth outbreaks.

On Tuesday, David Huxsoll, center director for the U.S. Agriculture Department’s foot-and-mouth research center on Plum Island, New York, told reporters he thought the disease could easily reach the United States.

“I think the odds are quite great,” Huxsoll said.”The United Kingdom is one of our closest allies and trading partners, only five hours away by plane, and there is a lot of tourism and opportunity for the virus to accidentally get back here.”

Peter Gregg, the dairy group’s spokesperson, said Huxsoll’s comments, in addition to remarks by other officials, had spurred the farmers into action.

“Given what Dr. Huxsoll said Tuesday, our dairy managers can’t take any chances,” Gregg said. “(Federal officials) appear to be conceding that despite all their efforts, it may just be a matter of luck whether foot-and-mouth appears here in the U.S.”

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman has expressed confidence in U.S. safeguards against foot-and-mouth disease and said some recent published reports mischaracterized the government’s view on the degree to which the United States is susceptible to the virus.