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US Livestock Industry Stays Alert for Terrorism - 2003-05-07

Authorities in the United States remain on high alert for a possible terrorist attack, but not just where people are direct targets. In states that raise a lot of livestock, a disease outbreak among cattle, swine or poultry could severely hurt the economy. From Austin, Texas, Janet Heimlich reports.

At the Luling Livestock Auction about an hour south of Austin, a large black cow is sent into the bidding ring. It's hard to believe that a terrorist would see this clumsy, frightened animal as a weapon for spreading an illness. But many here remember what happened in Great Britain two years ago, when an outbreak of foot and mouth disease led to the slaughter of nearly six million cows, pigs and sheep.

Now, foot and mouth is on a list of diseases that experts say could be used as bio-weapons. Before the auction got started, cattle raiser Gus Percon said he fears a foot and mouth disease outbreak in this country. "It would be devastating," said the cattleman. "That's the reason why we have to keep a wary eye. It could be devastating."

Mr. Percon says at his ranch, he watches out for people who act suspiciously ... such as those who drive by often or slow down. But he says he's not too worried about terrorists showing up at this auction.

"I don't think they'd waste time with a small place like this. They'd go to the big places. That's a hope but that might not always be," he said.

State officials have been telling producers about the financial dangers of livestock terrorism. Susan Combs is Commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture. She said while some animal diseases may not hurt humans, a federal study shows that an outbreak could cost the state's livestock industries sixty to $70 billion.

"In Texas alone, where we have about $15 billion a year in cash revenues off of cattle, if you added sheep and pigs and all the dairy, you're looking at a huge amount of money," said Ms. Combs, "so it wouldn't be just that all of those animals had to be slaughtered, it would be all the handling, et cetera, all the transportation." Agriculture officials are warning farmers and ranchers to be on the lookout for strangers and unusual symptoms in their animals.

"If you have unexplained deaths in your herd or some kind of an illness or staggering or blisters around the mouth, you gotta do two things right away," explained the state agriculture commissioner. "One is call your local vet at once and secondly, of course, call the local law enforcement people."

Texas has already gotten a glimpse of what an outbreak can do. In April, it became the fourth state to see signs of the deadly and contagious Exotic Newcastle Disease in chickens. Twenty small backyard flocks in El Paso have been quarantined or killed. Officials aren't sure how the outbreak got started, but in California, where it's hit the commercial poultry industry, nearly 3.5 million birds have been destroyed. Such swift action to contain an epidemic is necessary, and not only to protect public health. Foot and Mouth Disease is so feared around the world that many countries would cut off trade channels to the U.S. if there's even a suspicion of the illness.

President George W. Bush has asked Congress for millions of dollars to protect the nation's food supply. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has created a corps of veterinarians to aid federal agents in the event of an emergency.

"But there's always more that can be done," said James Roth, Professor of Veterinary Medicine and Director of the Center for Food Security and Public Health at Iowa State University. He would like to see more animal vaccines made available and the creation of a national system to track animals as they're moved around the country. Professor Roth says there also needs to be more security at auction barns. Despite what some ranchers believe, he says auctions are vulnerable targets. He encourages auction houses go the way of one Dallas outfit, which has farmers buy and sell livestock over closed circuit TV.

"Livestock auction markets in my opinion are a severe risk for bio-security," said Professor Roth, "and I think they are probably something we should discontinue and find another way for the trade in animals to occur without co-mingling them at auction markets."

At the Luling auction, about 1,000 cows are penned together. Just above, buyers lean over a raised walkway where they can get a good view of the cattle. It would be frightfully easy for a terrorist to spread a disease here, knowing that infected cattle would then be transported all over the state. Yet visitors don't have to show identification or have their boots or tires disinfected.

Texas Animal Health Inspector Rone Allen says such tightening of security is a bad idea. "I don't think that would be a viable option," said Mr. Allen. "I think that would disrupt the business here to make people do that."

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs agrees. She points out livestock owners are already hurting financially, and regulating the industry is not the answer to try to prevent an outbreak of an imported disease such as foot and mouth.

"We don't have it here, but if it were to come here I am sure every one of them would be asked to really tighten up. It's again a matter of common sense it's a matter of being watchful and it's a matter [of] observing," she said.

But animal disease experts say those steps may not be enough to protect livestock from the threat of bio-terrorism. As agriculture security officials continue to adopt new guidelines, they'll have to weigh the cost to producers and taxpayers with what it might take to keep the industry safe and the economy healthy.