ANNAPOLIS – Maryland State Veterinarian Robert Olson has been busy the last several weeks trying to reassure worried dairy and cattle farmers about the foot-and-mouth disease crisis ravaging the European livestock industry.
At every meeting he’s attended recently, foot-and-mouth disease has been the hot topic, he said.
One farmer told Olson he was counting on him personally to protect the state from the frightening situation.
“Anxiety is very, very high,” Olson said.
Though Olson is helping to develop plans in case the disease does appear, the federal government is taking the lead in protecting the country from an outbreak.
But Maryland farmers’ concerns are understandable. An outbreak could have a devastating impact on Maryland’s $203 million dairy industry and the $64 million cattle industry, Olson said. Cattle and dairy farming represent 29 percent of the state’s livestock industry.
Maryland has 235,000 head of cattle and 82,000 milk cows.
“This disease spreads so rapidly that it would be disastrous if it ever came,” Olson said.
Maryland is particularly vulnerable to an outbreak because of the amount of international travel moving through the area, Olson said.
Most farmers are in a wait-and-see mode – religiously watching the television hoping against bad news.
“We’re concerned. We sure hope it doesn’t come here,” said Robert Bender, a Garrett County dairy farmer.
Most of state’s cattle and dairy farms are in the west and central parts of the state between Frederick and Garrett counties.
The state is prepared to quarantine any farm found with the disease, Olson said, but beyond that it must trust the federal agencies to prevent the disease from entering the country.
“At this point we’re making a lot of contingency plans for how we would respond,” he said. “We’re not as fully prepared as some would like us to be, but we’re certainly working on it.”
The disease causes excessive drooling and blisters on the mouths and feet of cloven-hoofed animals such as cows, pigs and sheep. Though it is not dangerous to humans, it stunts the animals’ growth, and in the case of dairy cows, the ability to produce milk.
“It’s a disease we can’t live with at all,” Olson said. “In spite of it being safe to humans, the animal doesn’t produce.”
One mitigating factor for Maryland and the United States is that farms here are private property, as opposed to England where they are public and open to hiking. This makes it less likely for the virus to spread on the soles of people’s shoes, as it does easily.
The federal government has taken precautions, including banning all meat imported from Europe and recently Argentina, where the disease was just confirmed. It is also increasing its staff at major international airports.
“We’re working more people on high-risk flights,” said Meghan Thomas, U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service spokeswoman. “We have rovers around the baggage claim areas.”
Farmers and state officials are generally confident in the federal government.
“I think most farmers are optimistic,” Bender said. “I think the (federal government) will do their best to keep it away.”
And federal officials are trying to assure farmers remain confident.
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture is extremely confident in the safeguards we have in place,” Thomas said. “We have not had foot-and mouth since 1929.”
Foot-and-mouth is not related to mad-cow disease, which also appeared in England within the last year. Foot-and-mouth is not dangerous to humans, unlike mad-cow disease.