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Mad cow bears little resemblance to other livestock industry malady

March 31, 2001|By RICHARD MONTENEGRO, Staff Writer

Imperial County agriculture officials want the public to know there is a marked difference between foot-and-mouth and mad cow disease, both of which have caused tremendous damage to the livestock industry in Europe in recent months.

While mad cow disease can be fatal to humans, local ag officials say it is the economic hardships foot-and-mouth have the potential for that have many in the agricultural world worried.

"I think we need to make it clear there's a differentiation between mad cow and foot-and-mouth," county Agricultural Commissioner Steve Birdsall said. "Mad cow is not as contagious even though mad cow is a human pathogen."

The loss of life associated in recent years with the human consumption of mad cow-tainted beef is a reality, but Birdsall said foot-and-mouth has a "higher potential for overall impact."

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He added, "It's important for people to know the economic problems that would arise if we had a problem (with foot-and-mouth disease)."

Imperial County's livestock industry was valued in excess of $200 million in 1998 and 1999 — $219.6 million in '99 and $205.4 in '98, according to the 1999 county Agricultural Crop and Livestock Report compiled by Birdsall's office.

Birdsall added unofficial estimates for 2000 place the value of local livestock at more than $150 million.

While those numbers can be seen as staggering, Birdsall said there is the potential for even more economic hardship when other agricultural concerns tied to the livestock industry are factored in.

Although figures weren't available, Birdsall said forage crops grown to feed cattle and sheep and other grazing animals would also take a hit in the event of a local outbreak of foot-and-mouth.

And then there's the impact on jobs.

According to 1999 figures, the cattle industry accounted for 1,758 jobs, the sheep and lamb industry for 322 and other livestock and related products for 679.

Foot-and-mouth is a highly contagious picornavirus infection of cloven-hoofed animals like cattle and swine. However, the disease also affects sheep, goats and deer.

Spread over great distances with movement of infected livestock, animal products or people, FMD causes blisters followed by erosions in the mouth or on the feet of the afflicted animals.

Many affected animals recover but are left debilitated by the disease. Because is it so contagious animals are often slaughtered before they can recover.

The disease causes severe losses in the production of milk and meat and is often cited as the most dreaded livestock disease by ranchers.

North America is considered a foot-and-mouth disease-free area, with the last United States outbreak occurring in 1929, in Mexico in 1954 and in Canada in 1952.

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a fatal brain disease of cattle thought to have been spread by cattle being fed ground remnants of infected cattle. It is thought to be neither a virus nor a bacteria but a protein.

Foot-and-mouth, on the other hand, is a virus that survives in the lymph nodes and bone marrow of animals and can live in animal feed. The outbreak in England is thought to have started in infected pig swill.

The disease is also spread in the environment, surviving in soil, which can attach itself to the shoes and clothing of humans who have come in contact with areas of infection.

Information for this story was provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's animal and plant health inspection service and a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Web site.

Staff Writer Richard Montenegro can be reached at 337-3453.

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