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Potential impact locally? Tremendous'

FOOT-AND-MOUTH DISEASE:

March 31, 2001|By RICHARD MONTENEGRO, Staff Writer

Although recent incidents of foot-and-mouth disease have not been detected in North America, Imperial County agriculture officials and those in the local livestock industry are concerned about the effects a local outbreak could have on this county's economy.

Affecting all cloven-hoofed animals such as cattle, sheep and swine, foot-and-mouth disease has all but decimated England's livestock industry, where a state of emergency has been declared by government officials. Hundreds of thousands of heads of livestock have been slaughtered since the disease was first detected Feb. 19 in Essex County, northeast of London.

The United States has banned the importation of meat products from Europe and stepped up its efforts to prevent any U.S. outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

Locally, county agriculture officials are waiting to see where the state goes with its efforts to stop the disease from entering California.

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Meanwhile, County Agricultural Commissioner Steve Birdsall said Friday his office is in the information-gathering stage.

"We're quite concerned because the cattle industry is such a large part of the local economy," Birdsall said. "It's the No. 1 commodity.

"If we get foot-and-mouth it could have a tremendous economic impact on us," he said.

The value of Imperial County's livestock industry exceeded $200 million in 1998 and 1999.

With the 2000 county agricultural report still unpublished, Birdsall said estimates place livestock values for 2000 over $150 million.

He added more than 300,000 head of cattle, 180,000 sheep, 3,000 dairy cows and 10,000 head of miscellaneous livestock — all susceptible to an FMD outbreak — entered Imperial County during 2000.

Because of the potential impacts, Birdsall said he is assigning someone from his office to communicate with both the state concerning the disease and local cattle ranchers and those who make their livelihood through local cattle.

He added that person will "get information out to the industry."

Still, Birdsall is optimistic that an outbreak won't reach California.

"I don't think anybody should panic even if we do get it here," he said.

On April 23, Birdsall said a state Department of Food and Agriculture veterinarian from Chino will meet with local ag officials at the county Farm Bureau office to discuss FMD, the current status of the disease and the state's contingency plan to deal with any possible outbreak. The meeting is scheduled for 11 a.m.

Birdsall said the contingency plan has yet to be released by the state.

Steve Lyle, public affairs director with the state Department of Food and Agriculture in Sacramento, said Friday the contingency plan is still being hammered out.

"We're still trying to define that," Lyle said.

On March 20, Gov. Gray Davis ordered the CDFA to develop a contingency plan with the state Office of Emergency Planning.

Lyle said the idea of such a plan is to combine the expertise of CDFA's animal health officials with the emergency response experience of the Office of Emergency Planning to speed response time in the event of a California outbreak.

"It would really maximize our response to jump on the threat if it establishes and stamp it out," he added.

Ed McGrew of Holtville, a state Board of Food and Agriculture member, said at the board's monthly meeting Wednesday the issue of foot-and-mouth disease commanded the proceedings.

McGrew said the contingency plan will delve into such topics as the mass disposal of infected livestock.

Problems associated with mobilizing trucks to haul infected cattle and back hoes to dig mass graves, as well as pollution and fuel issues pertaining to the burning of infected cattle, were discussed.

He added, "One of my concerns is how the affected owner of these destroyed cattle will be compensated. The director (CDFA Secretary William J. "Bill" Lyons Jr.) stated he'd look into it.

"The fact is they're addressing (FMD) now, ahead of time," he said.

McGrew said the need for rapid response if the disease is detected is of vital importance.

He said it needs to be dealt with in "hours, certainly not days or weeks."

According to information provided by the CDFA, response time was a key factor in dealing with foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks in California in 1924 and 1929.

In 1924, the disease rampaged for 63 days before it was diagnosed and a state of emergency wasn't declared until 90 days after detection. The '24 outbreak resulted in $4.35 million in losses to the livestock industry.

Conversely, in 1929 it took state ag officials only three days to identify the problem and 109 days to declare an emergency. Losses during the '29 outbreak — the last outbreak in California — were kept to $108,000.

McGrew added it was announced at Wednesday's meeting that as many as 20 extra agricultural inspectors have been dispatched to international airports to screen those coming into the United States from European, South American and Asian countries where the disease has been detected.

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