Foot and Mouth Disease:

To Protect U.S. Livestock, USDA Must Remain Vigilant and Resolve Outstanding Issues

GAO-02-808: Published: Jul 26, 2002. Publicly Released: Aug 26, 2002.

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Robert A. Robinson
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The 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease (FMD) in the United Kingdom decisively illustrated the devastation that this highly contagious animal disease can cause to a nation's economy. By the time the disease was eradicated, the United Kingdom had slaughtered more than 4 million animals and sustained losses of $5 billion in the food and agricultural sectors, as well as comparable losses to its tourism industry. Before 2001, the United Kingdom had been FMD-free for almost 34 years. Following the outbreak, the country was generally barred from participating in the international trade of live animals and animal products that could transmit the virus. The United States has adequate processes for obtaining information on foreign FMD outbreaks and providing the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and others with this information, but it lacks adequate processes for sharing this information with the Customs Service. The United States receives information on FMD outbreaks from USDA officials stationed abroad, international agricultural and animal health organizations, and foreign governments. These officials collect a wide array of agricultural and animal health information about the countries and regions in which they are stationed, which ensures that the United States has timely access to information on foreign FMD outbreaks. However, USDA's processes for disseminating information on foreign FMD outbreaks are uneven. U.S. measures to prevent the introduction of FMD are comparable to those used by other countries and have kept the United States free of the the disease for 75 years. Nevertheless, because of the nature of the disease and the risk inherent in the ever-increasing volume of international travel and trade, U.S. livestock remains vulnerable to the disease. USDA has a two-pronged approach to prevent FMD from reaching U.S. livestock. USDA tries to keep FMD as far as possible from U.S. borders by helping other countries control and eradicate the disease. USDA has developed and implemented specific preventive measures at ports of entry to ensure that international cargo, animals, passengers, and mail do not bring the disease into the United States. In the event of an FMD outbreak, the United States will face several challenges in mounting an effective and quick response, although USDA and many states have developed and tested emergency animal disease response plans.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Department agreed that more effective signage was warranted.

    Recommendation: To help improve the effectiveness of U.S. measures to prevent the introduction of FMD by international passengers, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to develop more effective signage about FMD for ports of entry.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to the 09/11/01, DHS has lead responsibility for protecting the nation's infrastructure sectors, including agriculture. As part of a new national strategy, DHS has overseen the development of national plans and the adoption of standard protocols that will help agencies coordinate in protecting against and responding to emergencies, including those related to animal health. To further improve the response to emergencies, DHS established the National Incident Management System in which a key component is designed to coordinate the communication, personnel, and procedures of different agencies and levels of government within a common organizational structure that requires the resources of multiple federal, state, and local responders. In addition to these broader planning efforts, USDA's Veterinary Services has developed a National Animal Health Emergency Management System that provides comprehensive guidance on mitigating, preparing for, responding to, and recovering from an animal health emergency, such as foot and mouth disease. All of these processes and response plans have moved USDA into a better position to respond to a foreign animal disease outbreak, such as foot and mouth disease, and fulfills the intent of GAO's 2002 recommendation.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the United States is well positioned to respond effectively to an animal disease outbreak such as FMD, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of APHIS to develop a plan, which should include interim milestones and completion dates, for addressing the various unresolved issues that could challenge an effective U.S. response.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture


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