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Foot-and-mouth fears haunting area ranchers

Airports, not illegal immigrants, are seen as the greater danger


Citizen Staff Writer

Ranchers who graze cattle near the border with Mexico fear that foot-and-mouth disease may be carried into Arizona on the heels of illegal immigrants – literally.

U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors acknowledge there is a remote chance the disease could be transported from South America or Europe to Mexico, and then into the United States on the shoes of immigrants who sneak across the border.

The greater concern is that the highly contagious virus could enter the country from international flights into major airports, such as Phoenix Sky Harbor.

Daily British Airways flights into the airport from the United Kingdom have led to the interception of hundreds of possibly contaminated items, including golf bags and travelers’ shoes, USDA officials say.

But these precautions have did little to assuage some southern Arizona ranchers.

“Big deal,” said Cochise County rancher Roger Barnett. “Our government says they’re hiring more inspectors at airports and checking for this and that. They might be in the major ports, like Douglas, Naco and Nogales, but who is checking out the thousands of aliens who cross the border? They need to be down here on the line.”

Foot-and-mouth disease has led to the slaughter of 2.2 million head of livestock in the European Union. The UK has been hit hardest, with nearly 1,500 cases. The virus has also been found in France, the Netherlands and Ireland.

Outbreaks in Colombia, Uruguay and Argentina, where more than 290 cases have been reported, have fueled ranchers’ fears that the virus will be transported on the soles of border crossers from South America.

While USDA inspectors are taking extra steps along the U.S.-Mexico border to ensure foot-and-mouth does not enter the country, officials point out that Mexico has been free of the disease since 1953.

So, while the border is being closely watched, “there’s a higher probability of (the virus) coming in on a set of golf clubs from someone who has been on tour in the UK,” said Richard Narkaus, a USDA plant and animal protection quarantine officer in Nogales.

To deal with the threat, the USDA is increasing personnel and resources. The agency has secured $11.8 million in emergency funding and vowed to send inspectors to “hot spots,” including Sky Harbor.

The USDA has pulled inspectors from the Nogales and San Luis ports of entry to help at the airport, where hundreds of items have been intercepted and sanitized.

Inspectors X-ray baggage for animal products and sanitize the footwear of all passengers who say they have visited a farm or rural area. Soil samples scraped from footwear are incinerated in a secure facility in the airport.

Since the outbreak in Europe, which the USDA considers a “crisis,” inspectors have sanitized everything from bike tires to hiking boots to golf cleats, said Jim Manor, the airport’s port director.

As the disease is brought under control in the EU, the number of items and passengers that require inspection has decreased in Phoenix, Manor said.

“It has really dropped off because of the effort they’ve made to quarantine the virus in the United Kingdom,” Manor said. “We haven’t had that many items lately because public awareness is at such high level that (travelers) are avoiding contact with livestock.”

But ranchers are still concerned.

“In a prison, they guard the whole perimeter, not just the gates,” said Barnett, who has 250 head of cattle on a 22,000-acre ranch. “When you go to bed, you don’t just lock the front door, you lock the back door, too.”

Inspectors in Nogales acknowledge there is a theoretical possibility the disease could be carried north by border crossers. The disease can live up to a month under the right conditions but would require an elaborate set of circumstances to travel to the United States.

Colombia, some 3,000 miles from the Arizona-Mexico border, is the closest country to report an outbreak. But even there, according to the USDA, only three cases were reported in March, none this month.

In theory, a person from South America would have to come into contact with the virus and then travel into Mexico and from there into the United States, said USDA’s plant and animal protection quarantine supervisor in Nogales, Eloy Cortez. Mexico also regulates immigration from Central and South America and is on the watch for foot-and-mouth disease, he said.

“Both Mexico and Canada are very active partners,” Cortez said. “They have programs in place in their ports of entry. An outbreak would be just as detrimental to their countries, to their economies, if this spread.”

While the United States has been foot-and-mouth-free since 1929, U.S. officials went south to “help depopulate” diseased farms in rural Mexico until the country was free of the disease.

In Nogales, Son., cattle await inspection in a maze of orange corrals for the disease, known as fiebre aftosa in Spanish. Mexican and American federal veterinarians at ports of entry and interior checkpoints inspect livestock before passing from one side of the border to the other.

The implications if the disease hit the border region would likely be staggering, USDA’s Narkaus said.

“Were foot-and-mouth disease to appear in Mexico, then we would have to take extreme measures to control foot traffic, which is coming from ranch areas and crossing through ranch areas constantly,” USDA’s Narkaus said. “But it’s not here, and that’s the bottom line.”


Foot-and-mouth is a highly contagious and economically devastating disease of cattle and swine. It also affects sheep, goats, deer and other cloven-hooved animals.

Many affected animals recover, but the disease leaves them debilitated. It causes severe losses to the production of meat and milk.

The disease does not harm food safety or humans.


Foot-and-mouth viruses can be spread by animals, people and materials that bring the virus into physical contact with susceptible animals. An outbreak can occur when:

- People wearing contaminated clothes or footwear or using contaminated equipment pass the virus to susceptible animals.

- Animals carrying the virus are introduced into susceptible herds.

- Raw or improperly cooked garbage containing infected meat or animal products is fed to susceptible animals.

- Susceptible animals are exposed to materials such as hay, feed or hides contaminated with the virus.

- Susceptible animals drink common-source contaminated water.

Source: USDA

- HOT LINE: The U.S. Department of Agriculture has established a toll-free telephone center to respond to questions from the public regarding USDA’s response to the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Europe. The toll-free number is 1(800) 601-9327.

UA not taking extra precautions


Citizen Staff Writer

University of Arizona have no plans to change its visitation policies at its agricultural facility as a precaution against foot-and-mouth disease.

Several large agricultural schools across the country have restricted access or canceled exchange programs because of the virus, which has ravaged the agricultural industry in England and other European countries.

But at UA, officials say, the low risk level does not warrant heightened precautions.

“We did have discussions in the past, but nothing is being done at this point,” said Peter Cunion, UA’s Extension veterinarian. “We always encourage visitors. We have about 10,000 school kids per year, and it would be a major policy change to discontinue that activity.”

Cunion believes the risk is minimal because Arizona is not a state where large amounts of cattle is sold and transported.

“There’s not a lot of movement in and out of our Arizona facilities,” he said.

Universities that have restricted access to its agricultural facilities, or canceled exchange programs, include the University of California-Davis, California State University at Fresno, Michigan State University, Purdue University, the University of Wisconsin and Penn State University.

But that doesn’t mean UA is not watching the disease closely.

“We are concerned because this virus has spread pretty much around the world, England, and other places in Europe, China, Korea, Japan,” said Jim Collins, head of veterinary science and microbiology at UA.

“Anyone who works with animals is concerned, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has hundreds of people on alert about this.”

There are 100 dairy cows and 50 beef cows at UA. Statewide there are 301,000 head of beef cattle and 140,000 dairy cattle that could be affected if foot-and-mouth hit Arizona.

Many local livestock owners also don’t appear to be concerned. Dozens recently competed at the Pima County Fair, which ended last Sunday.

Leia Barbea Haro, 17, is a 4-H Club member who raises goats. The Flowing Wells High School student said she’s not at all worried about her goats getting the fatal illness.

And Mike Flint, Reid Park Zoo curator, said that while he’s on top of all the new information about foot-and-mouth, he’s not worried about it affecting his animals.

“There’s a whole lot of what if’s, but we have to look at the practical side of it, and the odds of something happening is very small,” he said. “And there are no indications there have been any problems in the U.S. As long as we follow the proper precautions, we’ll be fine.”

Cattle company near Yuma wants road shut down to prevent foot-and mouth


Citizen Staff Writer

In the town of Wellton, near Yuma, McElhaney Cattle Co. is literally stopping traffic to protect its cattle from foot-and-mouth disease.

If one case of foot-and-mouth hits the 3,000-acre cattle facility, the U.S. Department of Agriculture would wall off a two-mile radius and “depopulate” all the livestock, said Scott Shill, the cattle and feed yard manager for the company.

The company would lose all of its 102,000 head, Shill said.

He estimated the financial loss would be “in excess of $70 million,” although the USDA has promised to help compensate ranchers if the disease hits U.S. herds.

The cattle company, the second-largest in the state, has petitioned Yuma County to shut down a nearly two-mile stretch of road that runs through its property.

“We just felt it was in our best interest just until this calms down,” Shill said.

“Foot-and-mouth is an industry concern in that it’s so highly contagious. It’s basically a plane trip away, under the wrong circumstances, to get from an infected area into the U.S.”

The road outside Yuma, known as Avenue 34E and County Road 9, cuts an L-shape through the cattle company property and does not serve any homes or other businesses, Shill said.

Wellton, population 5,000, is 29 miles east of Yuma.

In addition to closing the road, the cattle company shut down its free public museum because of foot-and-mouth concerns, he added.

The highly contagious, virulent disease has devastated the livestock industries in the United Kingdom. The disease is not harmful to humans, but current guidelines call for the slaughter of all infected animals.


Cattle on the Mexican side of the border in Nogales await inspection for foot-and-mouth and other diseases. U.S. officials say Mexico has been free of the disease since 1953.

Hoof-and-mouth disease is known as fiebre aftosa in Mexico, where these cows await inspection. The closest nation to report an outbreak of the disease is Colombia, 3,000 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.

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