The United States Must Prepare For An Animal Disease Outbreak. And We Are NOT Prepared

pig Getty Images/Peter Parks

Bobby Acord Former USDA animal and plant health inspection service administrator
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The images of piles of burning cattle, sheep and pigs were horrific. In early 2001, a highly contagious disease swept through the English countryside, forcing farmers to kill more than 6 million animals. When it finally was brought under control in October of that year, the disease had cost the United Kingdom’s economy more than $16 billion.

The U.K. wasn’t prepared to deal with that outbreak of Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD), a sometimes-fatal viral disease that affects cloven-hooved animals, including pigs and cattle. (It is not a human-health or food-safety threat.)

Luckily, there hasn’t been an FMD outbreak in the United States since 1929, but the disease is endemic in many parts of our more-interconnected world, so dealing with it in this country isn’t a matter of if but when.

That’s why the U.S. pork industry and other livestock sectors are urging Congress to establish a vaccine bank that would help control and eradicate the disease. Without one, an outbreak here likely would cripple farmers, with ripple effects throughout the economy.

According to Iowa State University economists, a U.S. outbreak, which would prompt our trading partners to immediately close their markets to U.S. meat and dairy products, would cost the beef and pork industries a combined $128 billion over 10 years if farmers weren’t able to combat the disease through vaccination. The corn and soybean industries would lose over a decade $44 billion and $25 billion, respectively; economy-wide employment would fall by about 1.5 million jobs.

There also would be a significant cost to the U.S. government for trying to stamp out the disease: Kansas State University economists estimate $11 billion if the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) can’t vaccinate.

Although vaccination is the best way to address FMD, the United States currently doesn’t have access to enough vaccine to handle more than a small, localized outbreak. Vaccine antigen concentrate for only a few of the 23 FMD strains currently circulating in the world are kept at APHIS’s top-level biosecurity facility on Plum Island, off the coast of Long Island, N.Y. (U.S. law prohibits live FMD virus on the mainland.)

If there were an FMD outbreak now, antigen concentrate would need to be shipped to a manufacturer in England or France, then sent back to the United States as finished vaccine. That would take more than three weeks – too much time to stop the disease’s spread.

With declining incomes, labor shortages and volatility created by trade disputes currently challenging rural America, farmers can ill-afford for the United States to be ill-prepared to deal with such an economically devastating disease.

That’s why the livestock industry is asking congressional lawmakers to include in the 2018 Farm Bill language directing APHIS to set up a vendor-managed FMD vaccine bank, including manufacturing capacity to produce the millions of doses needed to respond to a medium- or large-scale outbreak. The industry is requesting funding of $250 million to $150 million for the vaccine bank, $70 million for state block grants for disease prevention and $30 million for the network of laboratories that provide disease diagnostic support – for each year of the next Farm Bill.

The House version of the five-year agricultural blueprint includes those amounts only for the first year; for the other years, it has $30 million for state block grants and $20 million to be used at the Agriculture secretary’s discretion for grants, labs and the vaccine bank. The Senate Farm Bill has money for the labs but that’s it.

Without adequate funding for the vaccine bank, global animal health companies will be reluctant to make long-term investments in expanding vaccine production capabilities and developing new vaccine technologies.

While the costs associated with preparing for an FMD outbreak are significant, they pale in comparison to the economic devastation the United States would suffer if it weren’t ready to respond to the disease. Is Congress willing to take that chance?

Bobby Acord was administrator of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service from 2001 to 2004. He is a consultant to the U.S. pork industry.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.