Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) has spread through livestock farms across the nation, leading to the killing of more than 2 million livestock in less than two months and causing huge damages to over 4,000 farms.
The slow response and fears that publicity would hurt meat exports led to the catastrophe. What is more worrisome is that the repercussions will likely to go on for several years, which can devastate our livestock industry. Soil and water contamination resulting from quarantine measures is feared to create additional grave problems later.
As of January 25, a total of 146 cases of the disease have occurred nationwide after it first broke out in Andong, North Gyeongsang Province on Nov. 28. However, any outbreak of the disease has not yet been reported from the Jeolla provinces and Jeju Island. Quarantine authorities have culled 2.63 million animals -- 142,901 heads of cattle and 2.48 million pigs. Total compensation payouts for affected farm households are estimated at more than 1.5 trillion won (US$1.34billion). If expenses for epidemic prevention and quarantine are included, the cost of the epidemic swells to more than 2 trillion won.
Korea last suffered a major FMD outbreak in 2002, during which some 160,000 animals were slaughtered.
To curb the alarming spread of the disease among livestock, the government raised the alert for the disease to the highest level. It also decided to launch a disaster management center to keep the deadly disease under control. This is the first time the highest disease alert has been declared for livestock infection. The decision came as the disease spread to four provinces just a month after it first broke out.
In addition, with the disease continuing to spread, the government has decided to vaccinate all cattle and pigs nationwide except for Jeju Island in a desperate effort to curb the spread of the disease, which has slowed the spread. Even nearly 70,000 troops and hundreds of pieces of military equipment were mobilized to help contain the epidemic.
On January 25, the National Veterinary Research and Quarantine Service released analysis of the ongoing spread of foot-and-mouth disease. It said there was no evidence that the virus spreads through the air, and most cases were found to have been spread via night-soil vehicles, fodder carriers, or animal drug carriers.
It advised people to thoroughly disinfect vehicles going to and from livestock farms outside and inside and their drivers as well. Farm owners and workers should be careful about their clothing, while separating their work from their leisure clothes.
Overshadowing Lunar New Year Holidays
The widening foot-and-mouth disease epidemic is likely to prevent some people from making the traditional visit to their hometown for the Lunar New Year.
Before en masse travel begins for the Lunar New Year holidays in early February, the government appealed to the public to help fight the disease. “The government needs the public’s help, in order to block an additional proliferation during the holidays.” said Minister Yoo Jeong-bok of the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, adding, “The government will anyway have completed vaccinating all cows and plans to finish vaccinating pigs before the holidays.”
A record 31.73 million people are expected to travel to and from their hometowns during the lunar New Year’s Day holidays this year, but some municipalities and livestock organizations are asking people to stay away to help combat the spread of the livestock epidemic.
Livestock farmers are also voluntarily cutting themselves off from their family and friends in fear that visitors might infect their farms with the disease or avian influenza A, fencing themselves in, shutting down roads and closing local markets.
Meanwhile, about 1,000 Buddhists attended a prayer session at the Jogye Temple in central Seoul to pray a peaceful rest of the souls of the culled animals. They also prayed for the end of the outbreaks around the nation. All livestock in the country will be inoculated by the end of this month.
Critics on Outdated Crisis Control Manual
Critics are saying the government’s crisis control of FMD was a failure. They are blaming the government’s FMD control methods for causing the nationwide spread of the disease. “The disease had already spread to the metropolitan area Gyeonggi Province 10 days before Andong was confirmed to be the place of origin,” said Joo Yi-seok, head of the disease preventive department of the National Veterinary Research and Quarantine Service.
“The main cause of the nationwide spread is neglect of the province for more than a month because everyone was following the rules of the government manual,” Joo said. In the current manual, livestock within a 500-meter radius of infected farms should be slaughtered, with a transport ban and detergent washing of vehicles within a 10 kilometer radius. Although the disease has an incubation period of two weeks at maximum, there were no measures to consider regions with high possibility of infection, critics say.
An epidemiologic investigation should have been launched to carefully determine the exact infection route, but the government failed to do so since there was no record of vehicles or people passing through areas, experts say. Vaccinations were also carried out according to the manual, and they were not aggressive, giving the disease opportunities to slip by, they observed.
Deputy Farm Minister Lee Sang-kil told reporters that with vaccinations completed for most cattle farms across the country, the government has issued new rules to stem the spread of FMD. Lee went to say they will “come up with a new manual so that this kind of case isn’t repeated.”
During the fight against the disease, two workers who were conducting disease surveillance and engaging in quarantine activities in affected areas died during the operation, the government said. A 23-year-old military servant, who was deployed in Gyeonggi to regulate vehicles going in and out of the area, was fatally hit by a car on Jan. 9. Another 40-year-old public official, who was also in quarantine duties, was reported to have died from working overtime on Jan. 14.
As damage costs snowball, the country is in urgent need of additional financial resources. To control domestic animal infectious diseases, the ministry has secured 103 billion won, which has already been used up. Currently, the government is using a portion of its emergency reserve of 2.7 trillion won, which is earmarked for other disasters as well.
Efforts to Curb Rising Prices
The government will temporarily eliminate tariffs on imported pork in an effort to stabilize prices in response to a supply shortage caused by the FMD spread, the Finance Ministry said. The Ministry specified the current 25 percent tariff on frozen pork meats, including pork belly, will be cut to zero starting this month. The reduction will remain effective until the end of June. The ministry said that it will consider extending the cut depending on market conditions.
The move is aimed at stabilizing prices for pork and related products such as ham and sausage because of concerns that the massive slaughter of pigs due to the spread of the disease is driving up meat prices. Tariffs on other imports, including mackerel, powdered milk and coffee beans, will be also eliminated.
The change concerning pork will be made through a modification in the tariff quota and take effect at the end of this month. It will be applied to 10,000 tons of pork belly, a popular meat in Korea, and 50,000 tons of other types of pork meat used for processed foods such as sausage and ham.
Accordingly, this year’s pork and beef imports by Korea, the sixth-biggest buyer of U.S. pork in 2009, must climb. According to the Korea Meat Import Association, pork imports may jump 15 percent to 20 percent from about 179,500 metric tons in 2011. Beef purchases may also gain as importers hold low inventories after deferring imports last year on high prices.