Britain has closed zoos, animal parks and tourist attractions, banned protest marches and political gatherings in some rural communities, and postponed the Crufts dog show and the Cheltenham horse races. Portugal has banned bullfights. Governments in Northern African and Central European have threatened to bar imports of European grain, while almost every country in the world has announced complete bans on British beef and livestock. The cause of this uproar is the recent outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. Coming on the heels of the furor over mad cow disease, there is justifiable concern that the world trade order is under siege.
Foot-and-mouth disease, sometimes known as hoof and mouth, poses no threat to human beings and is rarely lethal to animals. It is devastating, nevertheless. Infected livestock produce less milk and have lower meat concentrations. Even when the disease is not fatal, it can leave animals crippled and unable to feed themselves.
The disease is incredibly virulent. It spreads through direct contact with infected animals, but it can also be carried on shoes, cars, even the wind. Usually, when the disease is discovered in a country’s livestock — cows, sheep, pigs and goats are vulnerable — the rest of the world places a one-year ban on all imports of such animals, or their meat, from that country.
While Britain has taken the blame for this outbreak, there are questions about the origins of the disease. Argentina has confirmed that foot-and-mouth is present in its herds, and there are reports that the government covered up an outbreak late last year. In the past two years, there have been reports of the virus that causes the disease in countries ranging from Brazil to Kazakstan. Scientists are puzzled that the British outbreak has been triggered by a virus strain that until recently had only been seen in India.
No matter where it began, the important thing is that attempts to control it have failed. Even after British beef was banned from the European continent, cases have turned up in France and the Netherlands. More stringent measures are in order, and the consequences will be painful. Britain has killed about 250,000 animals and another 125,000 are marked for slaughter. Vaccination is an option, but that requires the introduction of live antibodies into animals, which risks earning them the label of being infected and then banned.
It is a nasty dilemma. But the bottom line is clear. The British livestock industry is in trouble. Four years ago, Taiwan suffered an outbreak of foot-and-mouth. A quarter of its 14 million pigs were slaughtered and its pork industry, which earned $1.55 billion annually, died.
There is the danger that the manifest failure of international controls will prompt nations to act unilaterally. This week, British consumers were unsettled to read that nerve cord, exports of which are banned because it is suspected of carrying mad cow disease, was discovered in beef that had been imported from Italy; previous cases involved beef imported from Germany, Spain and the Netherlands. People are growing increasingly worried and demanding action.
That will be expensive. Livestock is big business. Global exports of fresh, chilled and frozen meat have doubled over the past decade; they reached 20.8 million tons in 1999, reports the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Beef sales in Europe have fallen about 25 percent since October as a result of fears about mad cow disease. According to European Union Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler, EU farmers have lost about $1.7 billion in income during that time as a result of foot-and-mouth and mad cow disease.
Those numbers give some idea of the scale of the problem; that scale is, in many ways, the cause of the problem. Throughout much of the world, agriculture is an industry; there are no longer farms, but agri-businesses. The entire process of animal husbandry, from conception to cutlet, is a model of efficiency. It is routinized and centralized, designed to cut costs and maximize profits. The production chain is composed of thousands of links, and contamination at just one node is, thanks to the globalized economy, capable of being spread instantly around the planet.
Traditional ways of farming are under assault. Ironically, after years of abuse in international trade forums, Japan’s defense of its rice industry makes a great deal of sense. But it has become clear that culture is not the only concern. Still, the temptation to exploit these latest misfortunes in the name of a misguided policy must be resisted. In fact, the latest outbreaks of disease only prove how urgent it is to open a new trade round that deals with agricultural issues. The alternative is an ad hoc system that will invite abuse and retaliation. That cure would surely be worse than the disease.
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