Almost 100 years ago, most of California went on lock-down. The rest of the country, and even foreign powers, held its collective breath.
Neighboring states were on edge. Embargoes were levied on Californian produce. Canada banned meat and hay from the whole western part of the country. Armed conflict flared up at the California-Arizona border as Arizona attempted to barricade and seal itself off from its western neighbor. Hundreds of cars stormed border crossings. Public panic spiked.
Sounds like a made-for-TV movie, right? One article on it, published in the California History journal, and written by Kendrick Clements, reads like a novel. It wasn’t.
All of those things came about because of foot-and-mouth disease, a highly contagious virus that can wipe out cloven-hoofed animals. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service, foot-and-mouth disease is not in North America. But that wasn’t always the case.
The California epidemic in 1924 led to the wholesale slaughter of about 59,000 cattle, 21,000 swine, 28,000 sheep and 1,300 goats.
In a lesser known, but no less significant move, more than 22,000 deer were rounded up in the Sierra Nevadas and slaughtered after the disease was detected in a herd. The Sierra Nevadas remained quarantined for a year after that.
Take a minute to digest that. They quarantined a mountain range.
The repercussions of that outbreak impacted agriculture, commerce, quality of life, public perception and the economy. The response from public officials was fascinating.
It wasn’t the first time outbreaks had occurred: New England in 1902, New York and Pennsylvania in 1908 and Michigan and Illinois in 1914-15. In response, the USDA created a list of experienced veterinarians in each region and put together guidelines: strict quarantines and slaughter of infected herds.
Every state agreed to sign on to the requirements. They also agreed to take on equal responsibility for the cost of destroying and burying animals, hiring guards and compensating livestock owners for losses. So, in actuality, the measures were taken rather quickly.
What authorities didn’t foresee was the level of panic and fear they would have to juggle, Clements notes. In fact, he asserts that it’s likely the reason the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace refused to allow the study of the disease at the time.
“Since USDA scientists certainly would have understood that a scientific study could be conducted safely, we must conclude that other considerations lay behind Wallace’s adamant stand,” Clements writes. “Irrational panic was, after all, the aspect of the 1924 crisis for which the government was least prepared and which it was least successful in controlling.”
The most recent example we have now is the 2001 outbreak in the United Kingdom. Around 2,000 animals had the disease, but because of its virulence, 6 million were culled. I still remember the images of piles of dead stock, the looks of despair on farmers’ faces.
Even closer to home, there are veterinarians and USDA officials constantly tracking outbreaks of illnesses. Every time something is reported, they track it down.
Because of the movements of slaughter-bound animals in this country, those investigations can be complex and convoluted. How are those investigations funded? By taxpayer dollars. The longer they take, the more money is spent.
I think of all of these things when I hear of yet another attempt to stop mandatory identification. More recently, it’s in the form of a lawsuit from R-CALF USA, over the mandate to require RFID technology for cattle and bison. The lawsuit, filed in Casper, Wyoming, in October, questions whether the USDA has the authority to require the mandate, and contests other procedural issues.
I suppose such questions are a clever tactic. But I think about what I just wrote about — the effectiveness of a private entity, Good Housekeeping Institute, to keep raising the bar on safe and effective household products.
And I wonder: why is it so shocking when a government steps into a gap that exists? Why aren’t we asking ourselves why we didn’t do this years ago? There is a national brucellosis eradication program. When it started in the 1950s, there were almost 125,000 herds of cattle and bison affected, with a price tag of $400 million in losses. That program has been extremely effective in reducing outbreaks and curbing losses. The notion of a national program for cattle or bison isn’t a foreign concept.
Full disclosure: I own sheep. We are required to have federal tags for any animals going across state lines, especially for slaughter, because of the federal scrapie program. (The program isn’t perfect. Just this year, new, stricter requirements were enacted, because too many were skirting the rules.) I also sit on the small ruminant advisory committee for the Ohio Department of Agriculture. I hear about issues like this, routinely.
We even use Shearwell RFID technology on our farm, which is the same technology the USDA is transitioning to in order to enable better tracking. We’ve used it for years. It’s been a game-changer for our farm. Go ahead. Say I’m in the pocket of the feds.
But let me ask a question that I’ve mulled over for some time. Why are we so willing for tradition to stand in the way of transparency, when it could mean the protection of an increasingly interwoven food system?
The 1924 foot-and-mouth disease crisis is most striking in how effectively it caused widespread panic. Imagine if the same thing happened in this country now, with the advent of social media and 24/7 news cycles. Imagine if it showed up in a group of cattle in a stock yard in one state, but with no easy way to track them. Authorities would do it, but it would take time.
Frankly, I’m not sure we could recover. Lab-cultured meats and alternative proteins are just waiting in the wings to assure people of food safety and security. I’m not trying to be an alarmist. I’m trying to spur us all to be responsible stewards.
My challenge to all of us livestock producers is this: instead of suing the federal government because of our dislike of government overreach, perhaps we should step up and take extra measures ourselves. Because we care about our food and we care about making sure it’s safe.
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