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Group Urges APHIS to Consider Cattle Industry's Unique Characteristics when Formulating Emergency Plans

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Riverdale, Md. R-CALF USA participated in last week's Animal Health Emergency Preparedness Meeting sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) at APHIS' headquarters here. APHIS sponsored the meeting to clarify the agency's strategy for responding to animal health emergencies and to obtain industry input regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the strategy, along with suggestions for improving its current preparedness strategy. Opening the meeting were USDA Under Secretary Edward Avalos and APHIS Administrator Cindy Smith.

R-CALF USA expressed concern that APHIS has been systematically de-emphasizing the prevention of the introduction of foreign animal diseases (FADs) by relaxing long-standing import standards and now is emphasizing disease control and management instead of prevention. R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard said this strategy is a mistake and threatens the U.S. cattle industry's goal of maintaining the healthiest cattle herd in the world, which is the most important factor in maintaining a viable U.S. cattle industry.

Bullard pointed out the federal government is sending mixed signals to cattle producers and to beef consumers, both here and abroad, regarding animal diseases. Citing the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC's) recommendation that consumers can lower their risk for the human form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in countries affected by the disease by avoiding eating ground beef, he said that is not at all what APHIS is telling the cattle industry or beef export markets. He indicated that CDC's different position on BSE, particularly because of the CDC's strong reputation for protecting human health, lowers the public's confidence and raises serious questions regarding APHIS' more relaxed import policies.

Bullard also encouraged APHIS to not adopt a one-size-fits-all disease preparedness strategy, given the unique characteristics of the U.S. cattle industry. He said the cattle industry's marketing situation and its industry structure are substantially different when compared to either the dairy or hog industries. For example, he said, while 20 percent of the concentrated hog industry's production is dependent on export markets abroad, the U.S. cattle industry does not, and has not for over 40 years, produced enough beef to satisfy domestic beef consumption.

Therefore, he said, the cattle industry is not dependent on export markets as is the hog industry, and APHIS' primary objective following a disease outbreak in cattle should be the restoration and maintenance of the domestic market, leaving the export market as a secondary consideration. Further, Bullard continued, there are about five times more cattle herds with herd sizes over 100-head than there are hog or dairy herds with 100-head herds, indicating there are many more independent cattle producers who depend on their cattle for their livelihoods and business success than there are producers of other livestock, meaning there are more cattle producers than other livestock producers dependent on effective disease prevention and control, and they are more widely distributed across the United States.

Bullard also explained that because cattle have the longest biological cycle of any farmed animal, emergency planning must include early disease detection that takes into account fed cattle do not go to slaughter until they are about 15 months of age or older, and breeding stock could take 10 years to 14 years before entering a slaughtering plant. Therefore, he said, APHIS' earlier proposal to abandon first-point disease surveillance at auction yards and other initial gathering points and to, instead, focus its disease surveillance efforts at slaughtering plants is not adequate for the cattle industry. He suggested that APHIS reconsider its policy of pulling first-point surveillance away from local auction yards, and APHIS indicated it was in general agreement with the suggestion.

APHIS explained it is considering a number of options regarding how it would respond to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), which included the options of depopulation and vaccination, as well as possible combinations of the two, along with a commitment to immediately order vaccine upon the detection of an outbreak to keep the vaccination options open. Further, APHIS indicated it would take economic factors into consideration when deciding whether to focus primarily on vaccination or depopulation as its principle eradication tool.

Bullard, however, expressed concern that if APHIS decides to alleviate the costs associated with depopulation for a concentrated hog operation with tens of thousands of hogs by using vaccination, then the agency must also give the same consideration to the numerous cattle owners who could be affected should an outbreak of FMD be detected on rangeland. In other words, Bullard said, APHIS cannot give preferential treatment to concentrated livestock operations under a too-big-to-fail theory while forcing the depopulation of many smaller herds owned by many different producers. This, he said, could force many independent cattle producers out of business and destroy several generations of improved herd genetics.

"We are pleased that Under Secretary Avalos and Administrator Smith called this important meeting of the livestock industries, and I am not aware that APHIS ever did this during the past 10 years," Bullard said. "This may well be the first meeting with APHIS where the unique characteristics of the U.S. cattle industry were able to be considered in the context of formulating an effective animal health emergency preparedness plan, and we look forward to working with APHIS to refine that plan so as to minimize the impacts an animal health emergency would have on U.S. cattle producers."

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R-CALF USA (Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America) is a national, nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring the continued profitability and viability of the U.S. cattle industry. R-CALF USA represents thousands of U.S. cattle producers on trade and marketing issues. Members are located across 47 states and are primarily cow/calf operators, cattle backgrounders, and/or feedlot owners. R-CALF USA directors and committee chairs are extremely active unpaid volunteers. R-CALF USA has dozens of affiliate organizations and various main-street businesses are associate members. For more information, visit www.r-calfusa.com or, call 406-252-2516.

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R-CALF USA, Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America, represents thousands of U.S. cattle producers on domestic and international trade and marketing issues. R-CALF USA, a national, non-profit organization, is dedicated (more...)
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