May 15, 2002

 

 'Between a rock and a hard place' - May 15, 2002

Posted on May 1, 2002

n Tuesday, March 12, word spread that a consignment of cattle at a Kansas livestock exchange had signs of foot-and-mouth disease. A veterinarian inspecting cattle at the auction became concerned when he found lesions in the mouths of several adult cows from the same farm. The following day, shoddy feed, not FMD, was determined to have caused the sores.

But by then, the damage was already done. Rumors of an FMD outbreak in Kansas—what would have been the first in the United States since 1929—touched off a selling panic in the commodities market, costing cattle producers an estimated $50 million.

Kansas Animal Health Commissioner George Teagarden was called to testify before state lawmakers to account for how the rumor got so out of hand, and, at press time, there were calls for a federal investigation to determine whether the market had been illegally manipulated.

The state's attorney general and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association have requested an investigation by the Commodity and Futures Trading Commission to determine whether the rumors were part of an illegal price manipulation scheme. The cattlemen noted that the Department of Agriculture conducted approximately 800 FMD tests in 2001 without effect to cattle prices.

At the center of the storm was Dr. Gary Zimmerman. He alerted the state veterinarian that Tuesday about 13 adult cattle with suspicious blisters in their mouths. The cows were also thin and some drooled, all signs of FMD. The mixed animal practitioner with 29 years of experience says he was only doing his job, and federal and state officials are backing him.

Not long after the incident, at a National Institute for Animal Agriculture meeting in Chicago, Bobby Acord, administrator of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said the Kansas veterinarian did exactly what he was supposed to when a foreign animal disease is suspected.

In addition to working at a mixed practice in Holton, Kan., Dr. Zimmerman has inspected livestock for the state for the past six years. Buyers rely on him to tell them exactly what they're getting.

The Holton Livestock Exchange is open to the public and operates at a frenetic pace. On a given day, anywhere from 400 to 1,600 head of cattle can come through. Most are shipped to pastures and feedlots in central and western Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa. Before they are auctioned, the cows undergo a battery of tests: they're checked for brucellosis, respiratory problems, and cancer eye; the heifers are tested for pregnancy.

That Tuesday was one of the busier days. A little more than 1,380 head of cattle were brought for auction, according to exchange manager Dan Harris. One consignment of cattle Dr. Zimmerman looked at contained six adults and five calves. Standard practice is to check the mouths of cow-calf pairs to determine the adult's age. "The first cow had these lesions on her dental pad, and I took note of it," Dr. Zimmerman recalled.

His initial reaction was bovine viral diarrhea. But he ruled that out when he found sores in the mouths and on the tongues of the other cows. The cattle were part of three shipments from a producer in Everest, Kan., so those cattle were gathered together and examined. Lesions were discovered in all 13 adults, but not in the mouths of the calves.

What he was dealing with at that point, Dr. Zimmerman wasn't certain, so he consulted a USDA pamphlet with pictures of foot-and-mouth lesions. Great Britain is only just beginning to recover from an FMD outbreak last year that resulted in the slaughter of millions of cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats.

Veterinarians in the United States were warned to be especially vigilant for signs of the disease cropping up here.

Dr. Zimmerman has never seen an animal with FMD, but the lesions, he said, looked "very, very similar" to those in the brochure. "It looked like we had taken the pictures and put them in [the brochure] from these cows. I mean, the lesions looked identical to me," he said, so the state veterinarian, Dr. Paul Grosdidier, was called.

The livestock exchange is a public auction, so the cattle couldn't be isolated as they were being examined. There was no hiding the amount of attention they were receiving, especially when Dr. Grosdidier arrived around 4:30 p.m. to draw blood and take lesion samples.

By 7 p.m., buyers were asking Dr. Zimmerman about the cattle, to which he replied that they had some cows "they were going to hold." People in the ring knew the cattle were being checked for FMD.

"The wrong people" saw what was happening, Dr. Zimmerman said. "We didn't realize that we needed to be clandestine about what we were doing. We were just doing our job and trying to get everything done that needed to be done that day."

Exchange manager Harris wasn't aware of the situation until Dr. Grosdidier told him why he was there, assuring him there was "nothing to worry about," Harris said.

Dr. Grosdidier flew the samples to the Foreign Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory on Plum Island, N.Y., the next morning, Wednesday, March 13, according to Dr. Zimmerman.

Officials from the state veterinarian's office returned to the exchange around 10:30 a.m. to reexamine the cows. Later in the day, an inspection at the farm where the cattle originated revealed a horse with similar mouth lesions—a strong indication the cows were not infected with FMD, since horses aren't susceptible to the virus that causes FMD.

The owner—a novice, according to Dr. Zimmerman—was using hay mixed with timothy-a grass with long spikes. Seeds on the timothy had burrowed into the mucosa in the cattle's mouths, causing lesions. They weren't eating well because their mouths hurt, explaining their gaunt appearance and why some were drooling.

At the livestock exchange that morning, Harris received a call from a representative with a futures trading company in Denver wanting information about the "FMD outbreak" there. Harris dismissed the claim, but within five minutes, there was a second call. "From then on, it was hysteria," he said. "Everybody was calling from all over the United States, and how people found out so fast we do not know."

Harris was inundated by queries from the media, along with worried farmers and producer groups. It got so bad he had to shut off his second line. Even his cell phone was ringing. His response was unequivocal: some cattle at the exchange had been checked for FMD, but they were not infected.

"There never was a problem," Harris said weeks later, still sounding dismayed.

Later on that same Wednesday, the USDA announced that samples from the cattle tested at Plum Island were negative for the virus, putting to rest fears of a foreign animal disease outbreak.

Dr. Zimmerman and Harris have since been interviewed by a federal marshal dispatched by the USDA as part of an investigation to determine the source of the rumors.

"Somebody leaked the information," Dr. Zimmerman said. Harris was unwilling to speculate about how the rumor got started. "Whether they wanted to trade on the board the next day," Dr. Zimmerman continued, "and thought this would help them, or whether this was somebody who put it on the Internet because it was sensational and they thought they needed to put it out, that's going to be hard to determine."

The state livestock commissioner's office is now looking at how to improve communications so such a fiasco doesn't happen again. Dr. Zimmerman says he's been asked to be part of these efforts, which he's willing to do. Like all who emerge from a crisis, Dr. Zimmerman is wiser.

"I've realized that I was too naïve to deal with these big-time disasters like this turned out to be," he said. "Now I know that you can't let anyone know what you're doing. You've got to do it undercover.

"The thing of it is, had we tried to cover this up, and if it had been positive [for FMD virus], we would have been in big trouble, too. I guess I kinda reached that point between a rock and a hard place: I was damned if I did and damned if I didn't."