When it comes to becoming a leading exporter of pork several things come to mind, including pork quality, low production costs and ability to market your pork. While those are all vital, a nation’s herd-health status is equally vital, but often overlooked when discussing exports.

“Clearly, the most important thing in becoming a major player in the global pork scene is herd health,” says Ron Plain, University of Missouri agricultural economist. “Five years ago, Taiwan was among the world’s top pork exporting countries. Today Taiwan imports pork, all due to a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak.”

Taiwan’s pork and feed milling industries are still reeling from the FMD outbreak in 1997 that forced the slaughter of nearly 4 million Taiwanese hogs. Now, an FMD outbreak looks to set back another country.

The latest outbreak of FMD occurred in the United Kingdom in late February. Since that time, the European Union has imposed its own restrictions barring the export of any live animals, meat milk or other products from susceptible animals (hogs, cattle, goats and sheep) from the UK. The self-imposed bans were to last until a meeting of the Standing Veterinary Committee next week. It’s not yet certain that the most recent outbreak has been isolated and other nations have imposed their own bans against British meat exports.

The total infected herds from the latest outbreak currently stands at 70 and has spread to Northern Ireland, as of March 5. Over 53,000 animals have been slaughtered as a result of the outbreak. German officials have found FMD anti-bodies in sheep imported from the UK, meaning the animals have been in contact with the virus, additional causing alarm.

The UK pork industry was struggling mightily before the FMD outbreak. This development most likely will speed up the inevitable– the UK’s increasingly reduced role in the global pork scene.

However, if an outbreak were to occur in the United States, that could be a crippling event to a nation fighting for the top pork exporter spot. In 1997, a study showed that exports added $15 per hundredweight to every hog sold in the United States. Of course, in 1997 the average cash price was $51, so that number won’t be as high now, but exports still add value to U.S. pork– especially as production continues to grow. Exports are not something the industry can afford to lose.

U.S. producers, veterinarians and industry personnel have done a great job protecting the nation’s herd-health status and deserve more credit than they get. Industry leaders have emergency action plans in case of a disease outbreak to minimize any damage. Officials from Canada and Mexico are working with counterparts in the United States to protect North America from such diseases. The importance of maintaining a disease-free status to the domestic and export markets cannot be overstated.