Speaking with One Voice
By JUDY MALONE
ASI Director of Industry Information
(Sept. 1, 2013) An English judge and writer of law said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
The United States has been free of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) since 1929; however, it could take just one cloven-hooved animal infected with this severe, highly communicable viral disease to erase that status and much of our livelihoods. Although not a human health concern, FMD could devastate our livestock industry and agricultural economy. This stark reality demands the agricultural sector and associated industries develop an effective plan for preventing FMD, and in the event it enters the United States, rapidly containing the disease. In addition, providing for the continuity of business during an outbreak is critical for livestock producers, associated agribusinesses and consumers.
In 2001, the United Kingdom (UK) experienced a devastating FMD outbreak that affected 10,000 farms and resulted in $15 billion in losses. The more recent 2007 UK outbreak, while smaller and more quickly contained, still cost $20 million per week to eradicate. These two incidents alone demonstrate the value of investing in preparedness.
Although FMD is not a food-safety issue, if introduced into this country, it will rapidly infect cloven-hooved animals. The severity of the disease, however, varies greatly, even within a species. Sheep show very mild, if any, signs of the disease; however, they can still spread the virus. The rule of thumb is sheep are carriers, pigs are amplifiers and cows are indicators.
FMD is easily spread among susceptible species by wind, people, vehicles and other carriers. It permanently affects the health and productivity of infected animals and nearly 100 percent of exposed animals ultimately become infected. To control the animal-to-animal and farm-to-farm spread of the disease, infected animals must be quarantined and euthanized, and human and vehicle traffic around and within the outbreak area must be stopped.
Because of the severity of this potential disease, the sheep, beef, dairy and pork industries are working together to prepare a coordinated response to a potential outbreak. Dairy Management Inc., the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Pork Board began working together in 2001 and teaming up with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to drive FMD prevention and awareness in the United States. The American Sheep Industry Association joined the effort in 2011.
The goal of the Cross-Species FMD Team is to continually improve preparedness so the livestock industry can respond quickly in the event of an outbreak to ensure consumer confidence in the safety of meat and milk. Through a coordinated, consistent message, it is essential to do everything possible to prevent a disruption of products to the customer.
To achieve this, a unified communications crisis response plan has been created to help eliminate consumer confusion in the event of an outbreak. The plan will allow the industries to:
- speak with one voice;
- take advantage of joint communication resources; and,
- provide readily available information to consumers online at www.footandmouth diseaseinfo.org.
The focus of the group has been to inform the trade media and to equip them to be a vital part of the FMD emergency response effort. Relationships have been strengthened with front-line responders likely to be involved in a response effort, such as USDA, the Department of Homeland Security and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In 2012, the FMD team made the development and testing of consumer messages a priority since the most recent messages had been completed in 2007. A combination of bulletin board focus groups, an online survey and online focus groups were utilized to collect both qualitative and quantitative data. To be a participant, one had to eat meat or dairy products at least two times each month and a mix of age, sex, employment, education, ethnicity, income and geographic location was insured.
Between the 2007 study and the current study, consumer perception shifted. The internet has increased the ability for self-research and information gathering. Consumers want to be able to quickly locate accurate information about where the outbreak occurred, what species are involved, actions taken to contain the outbreak, assurances of vaccine approval and what will happen to infected animals.
Consumers indicated there would be little change in their buying habits if there was an FMD outbreak. They would monitor the situation to see if there was a recall of any meat or dairy products and would likely not purchase these products from stores that were sourcing meat and milk from within the infected area. Buying more locally grown meat, fruit, vegetables, seafood and chicken was emphasized.
Quantitatively, more than one-third of those surveyed said they were not likely to change their consumption patterns while only 25 percent said they were very likely to stop consuming meat and dairy products.
Many messages were evaluated. The containment messages tested to be the most reassuring and were most likely to instill confidence with consumers. Key points included:
- FMD is not a public health threat.
- The livestock community is working closely with USDA to quickly contain the disease and minimize the impact on livestock.
- Farmers and ranchers care for and closely monitor their animals for any signs of illness.
- The disease must be contained to protect the economic viability of the sheep, beef, pork and dairy industries.
The livestock communities have employed a coordinated communications plan to ensure a streamlined flow of information.
When it came to evaluating credible sources to relay this information, livestock organizations ranked at the bottom of the list. CDC, healthcare professionals and the U.S. surgeon general took the top three spots.
So how does this affect things moving forward? In the event of an FMD outbreak, the key components to include in communications and messaging to consumers should:
- assure consumers that their meat and milk are safe;
- explain what is being done to contain the outbreak;
- reference trusted and credible organizations and sources;
provide quick and accurate resources for additional information; and
- integrate a human element into the messages by referencing farmers and ranchers.
To provide current and accurate information, the Cross-Species FMD Team developed a website, www.footandmouthdisease info.org, for consumers, producers and the media. All information is continually updated to ensure that anyone searching for information on FMD now or during an outbreak can easily find factual data.
Keeping FMD out of the United States continues to be a priority for all of animal agriculture. If (or when) there is an outbreak, the level of preparedness will define the speed with which communication messages can be delivered, containment of livestock can be achieved, meat and milk can be made available and the disease can be eradicated.