To stop foot-and-mouth, track the cattle

U. ILLINOIS (US) — Surveillance and heartier animals could minimize losses if a foot-and-mouth outbreak were to strike Mexican cattle.

“For diseases that spread very quickly, such as foot-and-mouth, the best way to minimize economic losses is to have a very good surveillance system,” says University of Illinois agricultural economist Lia Nogueira.

“You can identify the herds that are sick right away and contain or slaughter them so the disease doesn’t continue to spread throughout the country.”


Nogueira says that when foot-and-mouth (FMD) ravaged the Mexican cattle industry in the 1940s, things were very different. Ranches were more isolated.

“If there was an outbreak in a certain region, it would have been contained to that region,” she says.

“Today we’re seeing a lot more feedlot finishing in Mexico like in the United States. There are more cattle traveling all over the country to finishing centers. Once the cattle start traveling, the disease can begin to spread all over and then you get into real trouble.”

Nogueira’s study simulated several scenarios that incorporated different levels of surveillance, which involves traceability and checkpoints so every cow’s origin and movement can be documented.

“In the scenario in which surveillance was very efficient and infected cows were identified quickly, the losses would not be very great,” she says. “A mid-range scenario of traceability would be probably the most feasible for Mexican ranchers.

“It would involve a 60 to 70 percent depopulation rate, and losses to society as a whole would be $9.6 to $16 billion. Producers sustain obvious losses, but consumers can also be affected through market responses, and tourism can suffer because of traveling restrictions.”

The 1940s outbreak of FMD in Mexico lasted for seven years and resulted in large losses in inventory with costs estimated over $250 million. More recently, an FMD outbreak in the United Kingdom in 2001 caused losses of between $3.6 and $11.6 billion and the slaughter of approximately 4 million animals.

Nogueira says the estimated costs for an outbreak today are much higher because it includes government costs of cleanup, producer costs, and consumer costs.

The study, published in the journal Agricultural Economics, also recommends that Mexican cattle ranchers consider raising a heartier breed of cattle so that if an outbreak should occur, the herd could be repopulated more quickly.

“One of the characteristics of the cattle industry in Mexico is that birth rates and death rates of the young cattle are much higher than they are in the United States,” Nogueira says.

“A different breed of cattle could decrease those rates, but to do that would take a lot of education, extension, and outreach activities to convince ranchers to switch from the type of cattle that they’ve been raising all of their lives.”

Nogueira explains that FMD is not transmitted to humans when they eat the meat or are in contact with an infected cow. This makes the disease very different from mad-cow disease, but of course it is still devastating to cattle ranchers.

“It’s a virus, so it spreads kind of like the flu to other cattle,” Nogueira says. “To contain the virus, you have to either completely quarantine or slaughter the cattle.

Cattle exports are a very small percentage of Mexican total exports and primarily calves that are produced in the northern Mexican states exported to the United States. Because the percentage of calves exported to the United States is so small, it would likely not have much of an implication on the U.S. industry.

“Analyzing Mexico for the FMD outbreak was interesting because most of the countries that have been analyzed are much more dependent upon export,” Nogueira says.

“In those countries, if you declare that you have FMD, the borders are closed and surrounding countries will not import anything.”

Nogueira’s research was part of a larger study for the United States Department of Agriculture about infectious diseases.

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