Who hasn't heard or seen the devastating reports on the foot-and-mouth disease episode in Great Britain and now in parts of Europe? It has even grabbed U.S. consumers' attention, and the general media has done a good job of sifting through the facts and keeping people informed. It's important that the public sees the horrible impact of such a disease and thinks about what would happen here at home. It's important that you do the same.

The United States hasn't had an FMD break since 1929, but the world has changed dramatically since then. With today's high volume of international trade, expedient travel and global tourism, U.S. livestock herds are more vulnerable then ever before – even with USDA's and the U.S. Customs Department's "stepped up" security measures.

FMD is a highly contagious virus. It takes less than 10 virus particles (if breathed in) to infect a cow, according to Martin Hugh Jones, epidemiologist at Louisiana State University and director of a World Health Organization program that tracks such diseases. The fact that it infects all hoofed animals, except for horses but including wildlife, is another reason why FMD is such a worrisome disease.

The fact that the virus is so long-lived adds to the concern. It can survive 10 to 12 weeks on clothing and up to one month on hair, notes Gary Bowman, Ohio State University veterinary preventative medicine specialist. It can travel on water droplets, through the air and on vehicle tires. And by now you've heard about the virus' ability to survive in meat and milk products. With tourist season fast approaching, it's not a stretch to imagine how easily FMD could find its way into the United States.

There is no way that USDA or the Customs Department can guarantee that everyone passing through checkpoints is FMD free.

Biosecurity measures are one line of defense, and they're your responsibility. You will find an outline of suggestions at www.porkmag.com under the heading "Weekly Spotlight".

You and your staff also need to be familiar with FMD facts and symptoms. Here are some worth noting, provided by a variety of sources, including USDA and Purdue University:

  • FMD's incubation period is 24 hours to 10 days.
  • Symptoms in Swine: Lameness with painful movement; the animal prefers to lie down. Blisters occur where the hoof joins the skin, around the coronet and the cleft of the hoof. Blisters may appear on the snout or tongue.
  • Symptom in Cattle: Shivering and raised temperature. Tender and sore feet with sores and blisters. Smacking and slobbering lips. Reduced milk yield.
  • Symptoms in Sheep: Sudden lameness and painful movement, causing the animal's preference to lie down. Blisters where the hoof joins the skin, around the coronet and the cleft of the foot. Blisters in the mouth form on the tongue and dental pad.
  • The turnaround time for an FMD test in the United States is about 24 hours. A sample is taken at the farm and air freighted to USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. It takes APHIS two to three hours to confirm the virus strain.

It takes two to three weeks to clear FMD from an area. However, Hugh-Jones points out that farms need to sit empty for three months. Sentinel animals are brought in around the 4th or 5th month. If they remain uninfected, "serious restocking" may begin by the 7th month, Hugh-Jones says. So, realistically production is down for about one year, and that's providing the area is cleared of FMD and there are replacement animals available.

For pork producers, FMD is just one concern – African swine fever and classical swine fever (hog cholera) still pose the occasional threat worldwide.

It's easy to think that distance and the two oceans will protect U.S. livestock herds from diseases in the rest of the world, but the current FMD outbreak is a wake-up call that you can't afford to ignore.