Q&A: What is FMD and Why Is the Beef Industry Preparing In Advance of an Outbreak?

by Nikki Richardson, MPA, APR, Associate Director, Reputation Management, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff

Summary: 

The United States has been free of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) since 1929. Foot-and-mouth disease is not a public health concern, however, it is a highly contagious serious animal disease that affects animals with cloven (divided) hooves, such as cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and deer and has the potential to sound scary to consumers who may not be familiar with the disease. The cross-species communications group, made up of communications experts from beef, dairy, sheep and pork have worked together for the past decade to develop a communications plan and resources should there be an outbreak. Season Solorio, Executive Director, Issues and Reputation Management and Daren Williams, Senior Executive Director, Communications for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff, provide their thoughts on the importance of crisis communications preparedness efforts.

Q: What is FMD?

Season Solorio (SS): Foot-and-mouth disease is a serious animal disease that affects animals with cloven (divided) hooves, such as cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and deer. Foot-and-mouth disease is highly contagious and debilitating to the animals it affects, but is not a human health or food safety concern. FMD affects the animals' appetites, which can affect their ability to maintain weight or produce milk. As a result, FMD poses a severe economic risk to the agricultural and food industry as an outbreak would significantly affect meat and dairy production. Because we haven’t had the disease in the United States since 1929, most consumers have very little awareness of FMD and may question the safety of meat if the disease is discovered in the U.S.  We’re working with other species groups that could be affected by an outbreak on a communications and crisis plans in advance of an outbreak to ensure a consistent, reassuring message.

Q: Why haven’t we had FMD in the U.S. since 1929?

Daren Williams (DW): The United States’ FMD-free status is due in part to the fact that the U.S. government and the nation's livestock producers have extensive prevention, surveillance and response measures in place to prevent the re-introduction and spread of the disease. Efforts are currently in place to protect the herd and the environment, such as continuously monitoring for FMD in the United States and around the world. The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) also works with Customs and Border Protection to screen for people or products that could carry the FMD virus into the United States at our ports of entry. Any imports of susceptible animals or animal products from FMD-affected countries are prohibited.

Q: Can people or pets get FMD? 

SS: In the event of an outbreak in the U.S. it will be critical to reassure consumers that FMD is not a threat to public health or food safety and does not affect the safety of pasteurized milk and meat sold in supermarkets and restaurants. We will also need to clear up any confusion between FMD and Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease (HFMD), a common viral illness of infants and children, or BSE, commonly known as “mad cow disease.” The fact is dogs, cats, horses, and other animals without cloven hooves, are not susceptible to FMD. 

Q: What are the potential economic ramifications of an FMD outbreak in the U.S.?

DW: Foot-and-mouth disease is one of the most economically damaging animal diseases in the world and currently exists in more than 100 countries. Because of the potential for rapid spread, with nearly 100 percent of exposed animals ultimately becoming infected, an outbreak of FMD could have very sizeable economic consequences that would be felt by many sectors of the U.S. economy, not just agriculture. The degree of economic impact would depend on how quickly the disease is identified and contained. If the outbreak is controlled quickly and eliminated – as with the last U.S. outbreak in 1929 – the damage could be limited. However, if the disease becomes widespread, the economic loss could easily reach billions of dollars.

Q: What has been done to prepare for an FMD outbreak? 

SS: When an FMD outbreak devastated the United Kingdom in 2001, communications and issues management experts from the National Pork Board, Dairy Management Inc., the American Sheep Industry Association and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (a contractor to the Beef Checkoff) came together to form the FMD Cross Species Communications group and started proactively preparing communications efforts should an FMD outbreak happen in the United States.

Over the past decade, the FMD Cross Species Communications group, working on behalf of livestock producers and their checkoff organizations, have worked together to:  

  • Create a unified crisis communication plan for the livestock industry
  • Collaborate on consumer-tested FMD messages
  • Coordinate with government communications professionals at the Animal Plant Health and Inspection Services department of the U.S. Department of Agriculture who would be instrumental in communicating in the event of an outbreak

Q: Tell us more about the communications work that’s been done in advance?

DW: As part of this planning process, we have written and frequently updated consumer messages. In 2013, we conducted additional consumer research to understand current awareness and knowledge levels regarding FMD and to assess consumers’ understanding and acceptance of various FMD messages. Specifically, the latest consumer insights found that:

  • People think they’ve heard of FMD – but they most often have it confused with hand, foot and mouth disease, a common childhood disease, and they also tend to confuse it with bovine spongiform encephalopathy and other three-letter diseases.
  • The internet and social media have increased the desire for information-gathering consumers. People are interested in knowing more in the event of an outbreak and want more detail than anticipated, including the location of the outbreak, species involved, actions taken to contain the outbreak, assurance of vaccine testing and approval and what happens to the euthanized animals. 
  • People want reassurance, meaning that they want to know that the livestock industry, government and others involved in the outbreak are coordinating efforts and that there is  a plan in place. In fact, being able to talk about how the government and livestock groups are working together to contain the disease and are the most reassuring to consumers and the most likely to instill confidence. 

Q: So how do we effectively communicate in the event of an FMD outbreak? 

SS: The bottom line is that, in the event of an FMD outbreak, communications should: 

  • Assure consumers of food safety and what is being done to contain the outbreak
  • Reference trusted and credible organizations and sources 
  • Provide resources for additional information 
  • Integrate a human element

Q: Where can people go to get more information or resources about FMD?

DW: If you need to direct consumers or producers to find more information on FMD, visit FootAndMouthDiseaseInfo.org, a partially Beef Checkoff-funded website which contains resources for consumers, media and producers about FMD and which would be the go-to source of information if there were to be an FMD outbreak in the United States.

Additional Resources: 

 

Tags: Beef Issues Quarterly, Questions and Answers, Summer 2014

June 2, 2014