Fearing disease, (California) ranches limit visits

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Fearing disease, ranches limit visitors

Posted at 10:41 p.m. PST Thursday, March 15, 2001


Mercury News

Large dairies and ranches across California shut their gates to all outsiders Thursday as questions surfaced about whether authorities could stop a contagious -- and economically catastrophic -- foot-and-mouth epidemic should it enter the country's biggest agricultural state.

``We're closed,'' said a security guard in the empty parking lot of the vast Harris Ranch near Coalinga, which produces 200 million pounds of beef a year. State and federal officials, who encourage the closings in the wake of an outbreak of the disease in Europe, say a plan is in place to contain an outbreak should one occur here.

California Department of Food and Agriculture spokesman Steve Lyle said the state hasn't ordered ranchers to bar all visitors. But the state has told ranchers to keep visitors who have traveled abroad and their belongings away from livestock areas for at least five days.

``There's a lot of concern out there right now,'' Lyle said. ``If a farmer wants to go a step further, that's up to each individual producer.''

But University of California-Davis agricultural economists warn that surveillance and control plans are poorly funded and would leave California vulnerable to an outbreak of the virus, which is transmitted readily through the air and on clothing and shoes.

A foot-and-mouth outbreak could cost $13.5 billion, wiping out beef, pork and the state's $4 billion dairy industry, famous for its cheeses, according to UC-Davis researchers. Some 5.1 million cattle, 800,000 sheep and 190,000 pigs would be at risk. Farmers in Britain, where the current epidemic started, already are being devastated by the disease.

``Between the towns of Ontario and Chino are 200 dairies, each with 1,500 cows each. They're literally backed up against each other,'' said Lovell S. Jarvis of the UC-Davis Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, who with fellow researcher Javier Ekboir studied the potential impact of foot-and-mouth disease in California.

``If it ever started, there is no way you could keep it from spreading,'' he said. ``How do you quickly slaughter 300,000 animals in a large urban area?''

Ranchers say they are on the lookout. At the muddy feedlots of Harris Ranch, a smelly site familiar to drivers on Interstate 5, two dozen cowboys ride through the pens visually inspecting each of the 100,000 head of cattle twice a day, according to head veterinarian Dr. Bruce Hoffman. All tours at Harris Farms have been canceled due to the scare. Access is limited to farm employees and owners of livestock.

Some smaller ranches and dairies remain open because their animals are less densely concentrated. But visitors are closely screened to ensure that they have not recently traveled overseas. Some farms require that visitors wear light plastic boots, face masks or plastic sheets.

European horses -- shipped to California for hunter/jumper or racing competition -- are being washed and quarantined for several days at Los Angeles International Airport, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector Dr. Paul Ugstab. While horses don't become sick they can carry the virus, potentially infecting other animals.

``We're concerned, keeping an eye on it,'' said Richard Lewis, director of racing operations at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields racetracks. Richard Cotta of California Dairies Inc., a Los Banos-based milk cooperative which purchases and processes almost half the milk in California, said, ``There's heightened security. . . . The outbreak has sensitized us to take some very real, and important, safety precautions. The U.S. hasn't stayed disease-free by accident.''

But UC-Davis economists warned that California has inadequate financial resources to respond to an animal health emergency. Eradication of an outbreak would require slaughter and disposal of 149,000 cows and 2,183 pigs in the first two weeks, the researchers conclude. This prompt action could cost an estimated $476 million.

But under present legislation, only $12 million is immediately available, Jarvis said. Waiting for additional resources would delay the start of an eradication program, he fears.

Early diagnosis constitutes the most important factor in reducing the total cost of an outbreak, Jarvis said. The major obstacle to early diagnosis is the low level of awareness among farmers and veterinarians, who haven't seen the disease in their lifetimes.

The key factor in stopping the spread of disease is the speed with which slaughter begins after an outbreak occurs, he added.``The opportunity for decisive intervention lasts only one week,'' he said. A delay of half a week would not only claim more lives but would increase the cost of control by $135 million, according to the researchers' mathematical models. A delay of one week increases the cost by $1.7 billion.

The United States and 90 other countries have imposed a ban on livestock, meat and dairy products from Europe. Despite efforts to contain the disease to England, officials in France and Saudi Arabia reported cases of the virus this week. Security at the 110 U.S. ports of entry have been increased.

State officials credit a host of policies with keeping California free of foot-and-mouth disease since 1929, the last U.S. outbreak, when 3,600 cattle, pigs and goats had to be killed in the state.``We've been over seven decades without an outbreak in California or the United States,'' Lyle said. ``We think it points to the fact that the system in place works.''

Chief among those protections are longstanding restrictions on feeding pigs, which spread the disease faster than other livestock, Lyle said. The guts and trimmings of butchered animals commonly used as swine feed must be sterilized by boiling or baking at 212 degrees for half an hour, and cannot be taken from imported stock, he said.

Similar laws require planes or ships entering from foreign countries to boil or bake any garbage that may contain animal products, including food waste, Lyle said.

``It would be deep economic damage throughout the livestock and dairy industries,'' Lyle said. ``We're hopeful that the episode is receiving widespread enough publicity that that won't be a problem. We have every hope and reason to believe that people want to do the right thing and will do the right thing.

``I'm not aware of any scare like this one,'' he said. ``They want to protect their farms, but most of these people have been around for a long time and know this is always a threat, that there's always foot-and-mouth disease on the planet.''

Four state veterinarians are being sent to England to help British authorities deal with the outbreak, and to learn how to deal with one here.

Contact Lisa M. Krieger at lkrieger@sjmercury.com or (408) 920-5565. Contact John Woolfolk at (408) 278-3410 or jwoolfolk@sjmercury.com.

-- Swissrose (Cellier3@mindspring.com), March 16, 2001

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