The US government in March temporarily banned the import of all animals and animal products from the European Union after foot-and-mouth disease spread to France from the United Kingdom. Cooked pork products are not part of the ban, however.
The action is part of a series of trade and travel restrictions imposed by the USDA to protect domestic livestock from the highly contagious and economically devastating disease.
More than 270,000 animals have been slaughtered in the UK and western Europe since foot-and-mouth was discovered in England this February. There are reports that as many as one million cattle, sheep, and pigs may have to be destroyed to arrest the disease spread.
"Foot-and-mouth disease is a personal tragedy for those affected, and a body blow to the livestock industry as a whole," British Agriculture Minister Nick Brown said.
Foot-and-mouth has not been seen in the United States since 1929, and government officials are working hard to keep it that way. In addition to the import ban, travelers from the European Union are forbidden from entering the United States with potentially contaminated agricultural products. They are also required to notify customs agents and USDA officials of any contact they had with European farms.
Current safeguards should be sufficient to keep the disease from entering the country, according to Dr. Alfonso Torres, USDA-APHIS deputy administrator, but if it were introduced, the effects on US livestock producers would be devastating.
"If it were to come to the United States, the losses would be in the billions [of dollars] in a very short time, because not only of the direct economic losses to our producers, but also the trade implications; all our markets would be shut down for quite a while," Dr. Torres said.
Foot-and-mouth does not pose a food safety danger to humans, but cloven-hooved animals are extremely susceptible to infection. The viruses that cause the disease are spread through physical contact by animals, people, or materials, and can travel in the wind.
At press time, 459 foot-and-mouth cases had been confirmed on farms in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
Despite Britain's efforts to keep the disease from crossing the English Channel to mainland Europe, a foot-and-mouth outbreak was confirmed March 13 in a small cattle herd in the western part of France. The cattle are believed to have contracted the disease from sheep imported from Britain prior to that country's prohibition on livestock exports. This triggered bans on imports of livestock and meat products from the European Union by the United States, Canada, and Australia.
The Irish Republic and the Netherlands are the latest EU member countries to report foot-and-mouth outbreaks. Elsewhere in the world, the USDA banned imports of Argentine beef after a recent reemergence of the disease in Argentina.
Some European Union officials complained that the USDA import ban was excessive. But Dr. Torres explained that, given the highly infectious nature of the disease, the measure was necessary to protect US livestock.
"Until we have some time to ascertain that no contaminated animals are in other member countries of the EU, we have taken this action," he said.
For more information about foot-and-mouth disease, visit www.avma.org/press/fmd/default.asp.