Foot-and-mouth is no longer just a disease of the farm — it’s now having potential economic impacts on urban areas, from cancelled vacations and school trips to shortages of some specialty cheeses.
Alberta Agriculture Minister Shirley McClellan has urged travellers to reassess overseas travel plans, citing the economic consequences if foot-and-mouth were to enter Alberta.
Learning Minister Lyle Oberg has asked schools to cancel trips, after receiving calls from concerned livestock producers. Alberta Pork also made a plea for school officials to cancel trips to countries infected with the disease.
“Even the suspicion of a case of foot-and-mouth could close our borders to trade and have devastating consequences for the provincial economy,” said McClellan.
Fear of the disease is leaving its mark on several major tourist attractions, including the Calgary Stampede, the Calgary Zoo and Spruce Meadows’ equestrian events.
Some regular exhibitors at the Calgary Stampede’s livestock show may stay home this year, fearful that visitors could infect their cattle.
|Wendy Dudley, Business Edge|
|Foot-and-mouth does not affect humans, who can transmit the virus.|
“We probably won’t go. It’s just too big a risk,” said Wayne Hanson, who raises champion Herefords and Angus on his Airdrie ranch. He had planned to take about 15 animals to the Stampede livestock show. His children also intend to pull their heifers from the 4-H show held at the Stampede in June.
Foot-and-mouth has swept through Britain with more than 500 infection sites.
Outbreaks have been reported in Ireland, France, the Netherlands and Argentina.
Calgary Stampede officials are discussing with exhibitors and livestock groups ways to reduce the risk of contamination, said Don Stewart, the Stampede’s senior agriculture manager.
Plans to develop a livestock exhibition protocol are under way, involving the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), the Alberta Cattle Commission, the Calgary Stampede and livestock associations, said Joanne Lemke, spokesperson for the Alberta Cattle Commission.
“What we come up with may end up being the template for other agriculture shows, such as the PNE (Pacific National Exhibition) and Royal Winter Fair,” she said.
The Stampede livestock show has about 4,500 entries and attracts one million visitors.
Rodeo stock contractors and country fair organizers are also concerned, aware of how an outbreak could affect their business.
“We’re sure talking about this, and we might put up signs (during events) warning the public about the dangers,” said Dave Clarke, chairman of the Millarville rodeo and a director of the Millarville agricultural society — which hosts a country fair each August attracting thousands of Calgarians.
Dr. John Chrumka, the CFIA’s Calgary-district veterinarian, said chances of infection from the average international traveller is minimal because the virus does not thrive in a dry climate and infectious doses are diluted over several days. “But if you’re coming from an infected farm, and then walking into a show barn, there is always the potential.”
The Stampede may install disinfectant foot pads like those used at the Calgary International Airport, but many producers question whether that is enough.
“The virus is airborne so I don’t know how much good it does just to disinfect your feet,” said Charolais breeder Bruce Bamford, who’s also having second thoughts about whether to compete at Stampede.
“If Stampede was next week, I wouldn’t be going. But we’ve got two months to decide, so I’m going to wait and see,” Bamford said.
“It would be impossible to have zero risk,” said CFIA communications adviser Bruce D’Andrea. “Disinfectant carpets are not magic carpets. They are not the whole solution to this problem.”
To disinfect every person stepping off an international flight would result in lengthy lineups and “airport rage,” said Chrumka, adding that CFIA now has four people working the airport. There is usually only one person.
Some sheep producers may also withdraw from Stampede, since foot-and-mouth affects all cloven-hoofed animals, including pigs, goats, llamas and bison.
Deer and elk can also contract the virus, and the disease would spread rapidly across the countryside.
The virus can be carried on the skin, hair and clothing. It can also survive in respiratory passages for up to 30 hours.
But for some ranchers, the show season will go on.
“You can’t stop living and we feel the government is taking all the steps it can to prevent it,” said Charolais breeder Rose Palmer.
This year’s Spruce Meadows’ show-jumping tournaments will have a different lineup, with British riders and horses banned from the event.
If the disease continues to spread throughout Europe, contestants from other infected countries may also be prohibited, said Linda Southern-Heathcott, executive vice-president of Spruce Meadows. The competition would lose its edge, but protection of the agriculture industry is a priority, she said.
Several days ago, the CFIA ordered that incoming horses from infected countries be sprayed with disinfectant, have their hooves disinfected, and that all tack and equipment be sanitized.
At the Calgary Zoo, employees working closely with such animals as warthogs are also disinfecting their footwear. Any visitors from infected countries are being asked not to participate in zoo programs, which take the public into areas closer to the animals.
Local Irish dance schools have cancelled their trips to Ireland in the wake of cancellation of the annual world’s competition, which was to take place there later this month.
“It’s really too bad, but I understand why,” said Ali Hampshire who, along with her sister Cait, was one of about 50 Alberta dancers who qualified for the event.
Some dude ranch owners are requesting overseas customers dry-clean their clothing and not arrive at the ranch until they have been in the country for several days.
“I’ve got one regular visitor from Scotland who cancelled her trip this year. She can’t even ride her own horse outside her paddock, so she’s decided to play it safe and stay home,” said Mac Makenny, owner of the Homeplace Ranch southwest of Calgary.
Most ranchers have cancelled farm tours and are requesting overseas relatives and friends not visit this year.
Olds College, one of the world’s leading agricultural colleges which houses about 500 animals, has closed its farm to casual visitors and will prohibit the public from mixing with its stock during its open house on April 7.
With the recent import ban on European unpasteurized cheeses, customers have been buying up dwindling supplies, said Mazen DeBaji, who owns two specialty food outlets in Calgary. “Soon, we’ll be all eating cheddar cheese.”
An outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Alberta would devastate the provincial economy, since 80 per cent of Alberta’s beef leaves the province, said Joanne Lemke, spokeswoman for the Alberta Cattle Commission.
Beef production is Alberta’s largest agricultural sector and meat packing is the second- largest manufacturing industry. With more than five million head of beef cattle, Alberta has about 40 per cent of Canada’s herd. Its exports are worth about $2.5 billion a year.
“We’d be dead in the water,” said Edward Schultz, general manager of Alberta Pork. The province produces about 15 per cent of Canada’s swine, and about half its hog production is exported.
With international trade, travel and movement of animals and food products, the risk of the disease spreading is much greater than when it was last diagnosed in Canada in 1952, said Lemke.
Canada is doing all it can to prevent a disease outbreak, D’Andrea said, noting that foot-and-mouth also exists in other countries such as Africa, Asia and South America. “We receive visitors from those countries every day and so far we have kept it out.”
A PRIMER ON FOOT-AND-MOUTH:
Foot-and-mouth is considered one of the most infectious animal diseases in the world.
It affects cloven-hoofed animals, including cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, elk, deer, bison, llamas, mountain goats, mountain sheep and antelope.
It does not affect humans and it is safe to eat the meat of an infected animal. The virus is easily transmitted and can be carried on footwear, clothing, skin, hair, equipment, straw or hay. It is also carried by the wind and can be spread through manure, saliva, milk and semen.
There are seven strains of the virus, and a vaccine against only one strain.
Once a country begins to vaccinate, it loses its disease-free status and exports are banned.
The virus can survive several months in cured sausage and processed and frozen foods. It can live up to 14 days on contaminated footwear or clothing.
Pasteurization and cooking kills the virus.
The virus can survive up to 30 hours in the throat and nasal passages.
Animals ill with the disease suffer rapid weight loss and a drop in milk production. Some will abort.
Symptoms include painful blisters and ulcers on the mouth, tongue, gums, lips, feet and teats. The virus can be present from 10 days to two weeks before symptoms occur. Recovery can take up to six months.
The virus can spread from one farm to another in a matter of hours.
The virus responsible for the current outbreak is believed to be a Pan-Asian strain and a variant of a strain reported in India in 1998.