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Economics and Politics of Foot and Mouth Disease

Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) is the first disease for which the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) established an “official list of free countries and zones.”  FMD is extremely contagious, and countries that do not have the disease, or that have eradicated it, have strong economic incentives to maintain their disease-fee status.  Countries in which FMD is endemic continue to work to control outbreaks and minimize production losses.  The significant expense of controlling FMD has resulted in a highly politicized disease in many countries, with, and without the virus.

For an updated list of the FMD status of over sixty participating countries, visit the OIE website.

United States

There have been nine outbreaks in the United States since 1870.  The most devastating of these occurred in 1914.  The outbreak, which originated in Michigan, gained the proportions of an epizootic with contamination of the stockyards of Chicago.  Over 170,000 cattle, sheep, and swine became infected, and eradication came at the cost of $4.5 million USD. The last outbreak of FMD in the United States was in 1929. 

Aggressive control measures are implemented in the U.S. to prevent FMD from gaining a foot-hold and decreasing the value of the industry.  Livestock production is the largest segment of American agriculture, with a national herd size of about 100 million cattle, 60 million pigs, and 7 million sheep.  Annual U.S. dairy sales are about 70 billion dollars.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture prohibits importation of live cloven-hoofed animals and many animal products from FMD-affected countries.  This is a policy practiced by most FMD-free countries, including Canada.hereford

Recent outbreaks of FMD in Europe pose a threat to American
agriculture, but also an opportunity. The biggest importers of
American beef and pork are Canada, Korea, Japan, and Mexico. 
An FMD outbreak in Europe or Argentina could increase sales of
animals to America’s most significant importers.  However,
widespread herd depopulation in Europe could decrease U.S.
sales of animal feed and soy meal to European countries.

There was a brief scare concerning potentially infected pigs in 2007, but laboratory results ruled out FMD. See American media coverage of the event:,2933,301712,00.html


Canada is recognized as “FMD-free where vaccination is not practiced.”

The last FMD outbreak occurred in Saskatchewan in 1952, as a result of illegally imported contaminated meat. The severity of the outbreak was in part due to its late diagnoses. Originally the cases were diagnosed as vesicular stomatitis, and the diagnosis of FMD was not made until three months after the initial infection.  The total livestock that were destroyed included 1,301 cattle, 294 swine, 97 sheep, 2,372 fowl, 15, 828 eggs, and one goat. Total economic losses were estimated at 722 million dollars (CD) plus the loss of a year of trade in livestock and livestock products. The economic toll of an FMD outbreak can be staggering, and is a culmination of expensive control measures, farmer compensation, and lost trade and tourism. freerangecattle

For more information about the outbreak, see R.F. Sellers and S.M. Daggupaty’s:
The epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease in Saskatchewan, Canada

United Kingdom

The most recent outbreak of FMD in the UK was in 2001, 34 years after the 1967 outbreak, which resulted in the slaughter of 442,000 animals and cost the country an estimated 370 million.

The 2001 outbreak began with the FMD diagnoses of several hogs at a slaughtering operation.  The hogs were likely infected by illegally imported meat scraps.  The timing of the outbreak, which surfaced in the wake of the EU’s Mad Cow crisis, was a heavy blow to the recuperating livestock industry, and there were fears that the industry would not ever recover.

Fear also circulated in the public, as newspapers published speculations on public health risks.  Many of these reports focused on two children whose deaths were linked to contaminated milk in an 1884 issue of the medical journal, The Practitioner. 

The Guardian on FMD as a public health concern:

By the time Britain’s 2001 outbreak was resolved, it had cost the country an estimated 8 billion. It is suggested that the economic severity of the outbreak could have been reduced by better management; for example the state was criticized for the amount of time that passed between the cows
first outbreak loci, and the time when counter-measures were put
into effect, resulting in spread of the disease which could have
been prevented. The government was also criticized for the
slaughter of disease-free animals, the assertion being that better
mathematical modeling of the epizootic could have prevented the
slaughter of some herds.  Eighty percent of the animals
slaughtered during the outbreak did not have FMD, and the risk
of exposure of these herds was the subject of much controversy.

It has also been pointed out that the FMD control policy is itself in
some ways responsible for the severe economic losses the disease
is now associated with.  For example, see this article by a UK

The UK managed to avoid a serious outbreak in 2007, when a handful of FMD cases were confirmed in a localized area in South-East England.  The government Health and Safety Executive concluded that the virus in this case escaped from a laboratory, probably via leaking drains.


FMD is endemic to pastoral regions of China, however the first report of FMD made to the World Health Organization (WHO) was not until 2005.  Since then there have been continued reports of FMD in a number of Chinese provinces.  For example, China reported 14 FMD outbreaks in 2009, and has declared them resolved.  It is not always clear whether reported outbreaks are new or ongoing.
Much ambiguity exists regarding incidences of FMD in China.  For example, there exist provincial orders and regulations for FMD control in China, which predate China’s first report of FMD to the WHO.  Domestic media reports often use the euphemism “disease number five,” because of the sensitivities surrounding the FMD issue, and Chinese media indicates numerous outbreaks in China that are not officially reported.caligraphycow

The Chinese government makes frequent claims that all areas
in which FMD was diagnosed have been disinfected. The
Chinese beef industry has not been significantly impacted by
FMD, possibly because of the quick responses to new outbreaks. 
Significantly, none of China’s major trading partners closed their
borders to Chinese livestock in response to the report of FMD in 2005.
China, on the other hand, has closed its borders to some livestock
in an effort to control FMD within its borders.

For example,


There have been several recent outbreaks of FMD in Mongolia, the most recent being confirmed in September, 2010. It was reported that FMD killed a number of cattle from a family’s herd in Dornod.  A report was submitted to WHO and more than 1,000 domestic animals have been contained in the quarantine zone. 

There is also concern over the disease spreading to herds of yakandcalf
wild whitetail gazelle. In the 1960s, FMD killed large numbers
of gazelle on the Eastern Mongolian steppes.  The gazelle may
also act as an efficient means of disease dispersal.

See Nyamsuren et al.'s article in the Journal of Wildlife Disease:
FMD was diagnosed in the Eastern provinces of Mongolia in the
summer months of 2010, and thousands of animals have been
vaccinated since this time. The Ministry of Food, Agriculture, and
Light Industry has proposed to vaccinate all 7.1 million livestock
in Mongolia’s Eastern provinces. 

Meanwhile, media reports covering FMD in Mongolia are providing a wide range of conflicting reports on the number of animals infected, and some articles commenting on recent FMD outbreaks in Mongolia have incorrectly indicated that the infection itself is fatal.

For example,

responses to the outbreak

FMD Quick Quiz


Created September 2010
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