WASHINGTON – Even though it only lasted nine days, the announcement by the Russian government Oct. 12 that it was banning meat products and livestock imported from Florida because of concern over anthrax sent chills through the U.S. agricultural community.
The primary meat product exported to Russia through Florida is poultry. Of the 694,000 tons of poultry exported to Russia last year, 40 percent of it was shipped through Florida ports.
The facts of the case gave USDA a battalion of arguments when the Foreign Agriculture Service met with Russian government officials last week.
USDA officials argued there was no scientific basis for the ban of meat products from Florida, and no justification for it.
Not in poultry. Anthrax in Florida has been from human exposure, and has not been found in any animal products and certainly not in poultry, said FAS spokesman Ralph Dutrow.
Anthrax as an animal disease has been limited to cattle, sheep, wildlife ruminants, horses, and pigs. Florida has not reported a case of animal anthrax since 1953.
USDA has also pointed out that Florida is merely the shipping point for poultry products. Most poultry shipped through Florida ports was raised and processed in the Carolinas.
On Oct. 22, Russia notified USDA that the ban on imports had been terminated.
Although this particular export ban has been resolved, the question remains whether an increase in the threat of anthrax in the United States could result in future bans of U.S. beef and pork exports.
While Russian imports of red meat, lamb, and pork are smaller than their imports of poultry, the dollar value of these meat products is actually higher than that of poultry.
Extra sensitivity. Russia may have an extra sensitivity to the issue of anthrax transmission through the processing of animals because of its own experiences, but meat producers in this country found even the hint of a ban of animal products highly disturbing.
In 1979, when a Soviet weapons facility released a spray of anthrax spores into the city of Yekaterinburg, killing 68 people and infecting animals in outlying areas, officials blamed the outbreak on infected meat.
Local public health officials took meat samples for testing and cracked down on butchers. It wasn’t until 1992 that the true cause was revealed.
And two years ago, 18 packing house workers in Russia contracted anthrax from handling slaughtered anthrax-infected cattle.
Risk is eliminated. In the United States, said veterinarian Gary Weber, executive director of regulatory affairs with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, “there has never been a case of anthrax from eating USDA-inspected meat. The risk of anthrax is eliminated before beef reaches consumers.”
According to the World Organization for Animal Health, anthrax is classified on its “B” list, among those animal diseases for which it specifies that the presence of anthrax in an exporting country is no basis for banning meat products.
“There is no evidence,” states the International Animal Health Code, “that anthrax is transmitted by animals before the onset of clinical and pathological signs. Early detection of outbreaks, quarantine, destruction of diseased animals, and implementation of appropriate sanitary procedures at abittoirs will ensure the safety of products of animal origin intended for human consumption.”
No specific requirement. USDA meat inspection regulations require all slaughtering and processing plants to specifically test for Salmonella and E. coli, but does not require testing for other pathogens in meat.
Regulations do require intensive cleaning after contact with an anthrax-infested carcass.
The primary defense against anthrax entering the food supply, however, has been the vigilance of meat producers and the requirement in most states that cases be reported to the state animal health service.
The only current U.S. outbreak is in Del Rio, Texas, where there have been ongoing outbreaks in livestock and deer throughout the summer.
The Texas Animal Health Commission has asked all livestock producers to maintain a heightened awareness and check livestock frequently.
Deadly in cattle. In cattle, fully developed anthrax is not difficult to diagnose. Initially, cattle are often found dead. When observed during the course of the disease, they are obviously sick with high fevers, uncoordinated movement, and convulsions. There is often bloody discharges. Death may occur in hours, days at the most.
But the USDA health service points out that the natural incubation period is typically three to seven days, and can be 14 days or more. If a herd is not under quarantine, or the disease has not yet been diagnosed, cases of animals being processed have occurred.
Was one case. The “Journal of the American Medical Association” last year reported a case in Minnesota where a farmer had killed, gutted, and skinned a cow that was unable to rise.
A local veterinary approved the slaughter of the cow for consumption by the farmer’s family. It was immediately taken to a meat-processing plant.
A month later he found five dead cattle in the pasture, and anthrax infection was confirmed. A later test confirmed anthrax in the already processed cow. But other meat that had gone through the same processing plant all tested negative.
In the interim, six family members had eaten meat from the infected cow. The meat had been thoroughly cooked. Only two of them reported any gastrointestinal illness, and in only one was it severe enough to cause a fever. Both recovered without treatment.
While gastrointestinal anthrax contracted from eating raw or undercooked meat, has a 25 to 60 percent fatality rate, no other cases of this form of anthrax have been documented in the United States.