An outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the United States could shut down beef and pork exports and profoundly disrupt our markets for years. Fortunately, we have not had FMD in this country since 1929, and experts around the country are working to keep it that way. But today, with more international movement of people and animals and greater dependence on export markets, the risk and consequence of an outbreak are far greater.

During the National Institute for Animal Agriculture’s annual conference last month, state and federal animal-health officials discussed prevention and response plans related to introduction of foreign animal diseases, particularly foot-and-mouth disease, in the United States.

Amid those discussions, Jim Herlihy, communications director for the U.S. Meat Export Federation, outlined the consequences of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the United States. Prior to his position with USMEF, Herlihy served as vice president for communications at JBS/Swift where he dealt with the repercussions of the 2003 BSE case and several E. coli-related beef recalls, so he is well familiar with domestic and international responses to disease issues in the food business.

Herlihy began by outlining the importance of exports to our markets. During 2011, he says, we saw record exports for beef, pork and lamb, with the value totaling $11.5 billion. The United States exported about 14 percent of beef production and 27 percent of pork production.

Virtually all of that trade would stop, at least in the short term, if FMD appeared in the United States. Most export markets would immediately close, with some variation in their flexibility and resumption of trade once the disease is under control. Herlihy notes that at any given time, about 258 million pounds of beef, pork and lamb are in transit, in shipping containers, to international customers. Following an outbreak, all of that product likely would return to the United States, where the question would become what to do with it. Domestic consumption or shipping to alternative export markets are possibilities, but unlikely, with disposal the probable fate.

Herlihy outlined these likely responses from individual countries that currently import U.S. meat products:

• Japan — Immediate ban and slow resumption of U.S. meat imports.
• China — At least a temporary closure to U.S. pork imports. China has not yet opened to U.S. beef but is the second-largest export market for U.S. pork.
• South Korea — Given the impact of their domestic outbreak of FMD, which caused the culling of about one-third of the country’s swine herds, South Korea would impose an immediate ban on U.S. meats.
• European Union — The European Union might be willing to accept a regionalization plan, accepting meat from U.S. regions certified as free of FMD, but Herlihy says we do not have a regionalization plan in place.
• Mexico — An immediate ban is likely, without provisions for regionalization.
• Middle East — Countries in this region probably would respond in line with the level of the epidemic.
• Russia — An immediate ban would be likely with uncertain timing for recovery.
• Vietnam — This is the only country Herlihy says might not impose a ban. Vietnam currently has FMD in its livestock herds, like several other countries that currently import U.S. meats.

For perspective, Herlihy says import bans following the 2003 BSE case in the United States resulted in about $12 billion in lost sales revenue over the past nine years. According to estimates from the Food and Agriculture Policy Research Institute, an outbreak of FMD in the United States could impact our markets to the tune of $12.9 billion in one year.