WELLSVILLE -- More than 30 officials from the Utah and Idaho agriculture departments descended on Wellsville this week for a three-day drill on how to handle a livestock disease emergency.
Officials and area veterinarians donned biohazard suits, and collected blood, mucus and stomach-content samples from a half-dozen cows, to practice testing for foot and mouth, a serious livestock disease that spreads fast and would require the immediate killing of any cattle exposed.
Any occurrence in Utah or Idaho would have a major impact on the economy, said Larry Lewis, a spokesman for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.
"It would be an economic catastrophe, it is so easily transmitted," he said of foot and mouth. "It can spread through the air or through touch. It would also infect other livestock, like pork."
Drill participants also conducted a mock exercise to practice what they would do if a cow at a cattle auction, exposed to many other animals, were later determined to be a carrier of foot and mouth.
This was only a drill.
"The reason for the drill was to establish communications channels between our state emergency responders and our counterparts in Idaho, and to reinforce the skills needed in case of a real livestock disease emergency," Lewis said.
"We wanted to make sure we have a system in place that protects the food supply, the livestock industry and the food stores for any disease that might cause economic and safety problems. There are serious foreign livestock diseases. From time to time, there are livestock diseases in our state, but nothing as serious as foot and mouth. There is also the potential for mad cow or other livestock diseases, so we want to be prepared."
Lewis said one way foot and mouth could come to America would be with infected manure stuck to a piece of imported farm equipment. Other diseases could arrive in meat and could contaminate the shipping containers. And there is the threat that livestock diseases could be spread purposely by terrorists, he said.
Other than the animals on hand for testing, the rest of the cattle used for the Tuesday-through-Thursday drill were "paper cows," Lewis said. Crews practiced the scenario of how they would track auction cattle that had potentially been infected by a diseased animal. Roadblocks could be set up to intercept diseased animals before they joined their new herds, for example.
"We traced forward to find where those 30 animals in the scenario went, and how we would find them on farms and test them, and determine if they had come in contact with animals from those farms and would need to be quarantined and tested," Lewis said.
The group also conducted classes on how to recognize symptoms of serious disease in cattle.
"We talked about the best biosecurity measures to have on a farm, and the history of foot and mouth disease," he said. "We talked about what happened in Great Britain in 2001. Back then, they worked fast to identify the outbreak, and 6 million cows had to be killed. It cost $2 billion to the industry, and $6 billion to tourism because of the closed roads."
Lewis said Utah partnered with Idaho because of the proximity of the two states and the fact that livestock numbers are high in both states.
According to 2007 USDA figures Lewis quoted, Utah's annual livestock revenue is $1 billion, and Idaho's is $3.2 billion. Nationally, annual revenue from livestock is $153 billion, about half of America's annual total $300 billion agricultural industry.