Foot and mouth disease: a world issue

FMD (foot and mouth disease) is ravaging the United Kingdom and by the middle of last week, cases were confirmed in France and in Italy.

What is this disease?

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency website at notes:

“Foot and Mouth Disease is a severe, highly communicable viral disease of cattle and swine. It also affects sheep, goats, deer and other cloven-hoofed ruminants … The disease is characterized by fever and blister-like sores on the tongue and lips, in the mouth, on the teats and between the hooves. Many affected animals recover, but the disease leaves them weakened and debilitated. Horses are not affected. Canada has been free of Foot and Mouth Disease since 1952.”

What is happening “on the ground” in England, as I write this? The web brings immediacy to this tragedy, whereby distressed British farmers are witnessing the slaughter, then burning of their herds in giant, smoking pyres.

Tim Teague is a correspondent for @AgWorldwide, an Internet e-zine (electronic magazine). He also operates a beef cattle operation in Shropshire, England, growing forage, maize, and small grains on 470 acres. On March 15, he posted this to the website at

“The situation here in the UK is now a complete disaster. The whole rural economy is at a standstill. All movement of livestock is banned, unless direct to slaughter under a strict licensing system. All public foot paths are closed, sporting fixtures are postponed and social gatherings cancelled or put on hold. Everyone is extremely nervous, watching the media for a fresh outbreak close to home, thereby threatening their own animals and livelihood.

“Today we have 231 confirmed outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in the UK and one in France, with 25 new cases today. All cloven hoofed animals are affected - pigs, sheep and cattle. The latest figures I can find are for yesterday, March 13, when 121,000 animals had been slaughtered with 49,000 infected animals waiting to die. These figures, as shocking as they are, tell a story themselves.”

It is important to recognize what is at stake. The risk is not “only” that a farm family may lose its own herd. Under normal conditions, a herd can be replaced with relative ease. But this FMD is not “situation normal.” What if so many animals have been destroyed due to FMD that there are no/little breeding cattle stock left? And what happens if the genetic pool has been seriously depleted or, in some cases with some breeds, eradicated?

Teague also touches on another crucial aspect to FMD: the virus’ viability. This killer travels silently and efficiently. The virus can be wind-blown for many kilometres… some have said over 60. Teague notes, “The virus can travel huge distances; it was estimated today that 1,000 infected pigs could spread the virus for 175 miles given the right (or wrong!) weather conditions.”

As the news tells us, British and French farmers in infected regions have been forced to (or have voluntarily) barricaded their farms. Any vehicle or person travelling in or out of the farm property must pass over hay or mats soaked in disinfectant, and I believe that some entire areas are shut to outside traffic.

International travel also poses a risk, whether for pleasure, business… or school trips. Travellers to Europe and the UK so far must walk over mats soaked in disinfectant prior to boarding planes. And I believe that CBC radio recently reported at least one school class having to rent rooms at a hotel where all kids had to have special showers, wash with vinegar.

Is walking over a mat adequate protection? Or is it merely a Band-Aid, an attempt at holding a virulent virus at bay when money from tourism is hard to refuse?

Which brings us to the Pontiac Protestant High School’s upcoming trip to Europe. Is it appropriate for kids from our rural farming community to go to London, Paris, Lucerne (Switzerland) and Heidelberg (Germany)? To find out moe, I interviewed Joan Conrod, the PPHS teacher who has organized this educational trip on Monday March 19. Because of the virus, she called Agriculture Canada, who advised her to call the Department of Foreign Affairs. I understand they told her that there is no contamination in these cities unless someone brings “infected manure in on their boot.” As of now, she says, the kids would simply have to disinfect their boots by walking over a mat soaked in disinfectant.

However, she was advised to call again a week prior to the trip to ensure the rules haven’t altered. Pending the Department’s advice, further action may be required. She also mentioned that the travel company, Education First (“EF”) has not yet sent the tickets to the kids, and that this is later than usual. She wonders whether EF is waiting just in case the itinerary needs changing.

In addition, Mrs. Conrod told me she had heard something about travellers not being supposed to return to farms prior to a 14-day “quarantine.” Of the 50 kids going, apparently 10 or 11 live on farms, but the others may visit friends or family on Pontiac farms. The trip has many parents concerned about what to do, Mrs. Conrod noted… And they are not the only ones. The UPA, MAPAQ office and local producers share this concern, given the gravity of the situation and the presence of over 450 farms in our region.

What are other folks doing? Again, turning to the web, on March 16, here’s what Agriculture Canada’s website posts at under the heading “World Angus meeting postponed.”

“A world-wide meeting for breeders of Aberdeen Angus cattle scheduled for June in the UK has been postponed due to the outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease. One hundred Canadian Angus breeders were scheduled to attend the World Angus Forum in Stirling, Scotland. The forum is held every 4 years in a different host country. The organizing committee in Scotland has tentatively re-scheduled the meeting for the same time next year, but if the Foot and Mouth outbreak is not totally under control by this summer it may well be canceled permanently.”

As human beings, we thrive on blaming others. It’s a sad but true fact that it’s easier to point fingers than to look in the mirror and accept accountability. Britain provides an easy scapegoat because it’s there that FMD manifested itself. Others claim that the virus came to Britain from Germany, in feed. From Shropshire, England, Teague the ag correspondent wrote:

“What we all want to know is where this came from. It was certainly imported, as it is an Asian strain of the virus. The feeding of pig swill seems the most likely source, using waste airline food. And, lets not forget where the British Armed forces get their beef and lamb from. Believe it or not, South America, where they can buy their meat cheaper than in the UK. The foot-and-mouth virus is endemic in the whole of South America. Bolivia alone has more than 1,000 confirmed outbreaks. Today a government minister said that it was highly unlikely that the source of this outbreak would ever be conclusively found. How convenient.”

Are we at risk in Canada? Of course we are. Canada and the Pontiac are not islands… and the UK proves just how much being an island is irrelevant, anyhow.

If you think about it, the return of the Russian spacestation Mir to Earth this week puts our home planet at risk from a different contamination: now from outer space.

We often hear words like, “there’s no safe haven left.” Well, I suppose there never was a truly safe haven, because as species travel our oceans, air and land, habitats and worlds collide, mutate, thrive and die off.

But FMD gives us much food for thought, doesn’t it?


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer based near Quyon, Québec. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at