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Cattle foot and mouth: Infectious and notifiable disease quietly causing pain and economic impact

By Hannah Gunner | May 30, 2023

Climate change is affecting crop production in terms of quality, availability, and price. For those involved in meat production, reduced animal health could inevitably mean a higher risk of disease.
Climate Risk and Resilience

With fewer confirmed cases of late, the fear of foot and mouth disease (FMD) may have dissipated for western farmers and food producers but, without constant vigilance, the conditions remain for significant outbreaks.

Current outbreaks in southeast and central Asia and the Middle East, and reports of lax border security and reporting standards all suggest the disease known as the ‘deadliest livestock pathogen’ retains the potential to make a comeback in major meat-producing nations.

How the disease works

The disease is a highly contagious viral infection ‘notifiable’ to the veterinary services within countries, and they are responsible for its control. FMD is uniquely resistant to changes in its environment and can survive on inanimate objects until it finds a living host; it infects cattle, sheep, goats, swine and other cloven-hoofed animals, but not horses or zebras.

The virus is transferable via clothing, transport equipment, feed and the meat from livestock products; its ability to contaminate a wide variety of potential carriers makes eradication very difficult.

Animals develop blisters mainly in the mouth and feet when infected, which rupture and turn into painful lesions, making it very difficult for them to walk or eat and they begin to drool. While only a small proportion of infected animals die from the virus, many are ultimately slaughtered to prevent the disease from spreading. Other symptoms include fever, depression, hypersalivation, loss of appetite, weight loss, growth retardation and a drop in milk production, which can persist even after recovery.

FMD is not considered a significant risk to human health, despite being carried in living animals, their meat and dairy products. Examples of animal-to-human transmission are rare, and any risks can be further reduced by limiting the consumption of animal-based products.

Understanding the risk landscape: The scale of the problem

In general, the global spread of FMD has not seen a dramatic recent expansion (see current global FMD map from the World Organisation for Animal Health [WOAH]). However, recent outbreaks in Indonesia, Kazakhstan and to lesser extent Jordan illustrate the threat it still poses.

In Jordan, contaminated cattle feed imported from a neighbouring country in the second half of 2022 infected about 1.6% of the Kingdom’s cows, forcing authorities to inoculate 4 million head of livestock (goats, sheep, cattle, etc.).

While the outbreak was apparently curtailed relatively quickly, the country’s Livestock Owners and Breeders Association estimated cattle-owner losses alone at $35.2 million after 14 of the country’s biggest barns were closed for two weeks.

The outbreak in Indonesia continues to be more complicated. Ostensibly FMD-free since 1986, the first case was discovered in April last year (2022) and at last count had infected more than 470,000 animals across 24 of the country’s 37 provinces, according government figures, although observers believe the actual numbers are much higher.

In June, the Indonesian government launched a vaccination campaign and inoculated almost one million (992,000) livestock in the following two months, but the country continues to struggle to control the disease.

12,500+ No. of animals killed in Indonesia with FMD.

More than 12,500 animals have been killed. With more than 6.5 million rural farmers dependent upon about 16 million cattle for income, some observers have questioned whether this FMD outbreak could signal the end of Indonesia’s livestock sector.

The Indonesian Cattle and Buffalo Breeders Association estimated the outbreak cost their economy an estimated $1.37 billion last year, with efforts to stem the spread hampered by a lack of vaccines and the fragmented nature of Indonesia’s livestock industry. The country is home to more than 18,000 islands.

In central Asia, Kazakhstan’s delegate to WOAH declared an FMD outbreak last year and began a vaccination campaign across many of its regions, prompting the organisation to suspend the country’s status as an ‘FMD-free zone where vaccination is not practised’. Russia suspended related meat imports.

The latest reports from the country suggested the outbreak is ongoing, a status reflected on the latest version of WOAH’s global FMD map (see above).

Despite considerable information being available about the virus, the disease and vaccines, FMD is still seen in veterinary circles as a significant threat to the livestock industry world-wide. A lack of transparency, both from governments and veterinarians, in some nations and lax reporting standards continue to fuel fears about the spread of the virus.

70% Percentage of animal diseases not reported within the 24-hour timeframe required by WOAH.

According to the latest WOAH report, Governance and Performance of Veterinary Services, within its 182 member nations, 70% of animal diseases are not reported within the 24-hour timeframe required by its standards; in 59% of cases, reporting took two days to a month; in 11%, reporting took more than a month.

The delays and poor practice are not restricted to under-resourced nations; the reporting pract­ices of some of the world’s biggest meat-exporting nations are increasingly under scrutiny in major importing nations such as U.S., where security at the southern border also has become a source of concern for ranchers.

Financial impact

While the U.S. has not had a FMD contagion since the 1920s, an outbreak isolated to just the state of California could cost $6 billion to $14 billion, according recent estimates from the US Department of Agriculture.

The total reported cost to the British economy for its 2001 FMD outbreak, during which 6 million sheep, cattle and pigs had to be slaughtered, was more than $11 billion (at 2001 exchange rates).

Illegally imported meat, even relatively small amounts carried in personal luggage, is a major cause of FMD contagion, which is why border security is a growing issue in countries such as the U.S. and in the U.K., where departure from the EU is requiring a realignment of Customs procedures.

Policy development in Australia, where farmers and officials are warily watching the FMD outbreak in nearby Indonesia, is increasingly recognising that supporting the cost of developing international standards and/or helping neighbours to develop compatible biosecurity strategies is substantially less than the cost of an outbreak.

There, funding integrated prevention strategies and stronger partnerships are clearly seen as good for the bottom line.

Prevention and control

The obvious financial risks of livestock exposure to FMD and other pathogens have prompted significant research in the past decade into mitigation/prevention strategies, with domestic biosecurity initiatives rising to the top as best practice in most mature economies.

Biosecurity strategies offer basic tenets – such as procedures for ensuring the cleanliness of farm workers, dairy/meat products, production equipment, and transport infrastructure and are then customised to the respond to the specific risks where they are introduced.

But, even with absolute discipline to the prescribed processes, the success of biosecurity initiatives remains vulnerable to external factors, such as border security and the hygiene practices of supply-chain partners and in nearby countries.

Its prevention is based on the presence of early detection and warning systems and the implementation of effective surveillance among other measures.

Beyond biosecurity, the insurance markets currently offer a variety of risk transfer options that cover infectious diseases in animals. FMD cover is available in the London market, as are versions of all risks mortality cover.


According to WOAH, the disease is believed to circulate in 77% of the global livestock population, in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, as well as in a limited area of South America. Countries that are currently free of FMD without vaccination remain under constant threat of an incursion.

Some 75% percent of the costs attributed to FMD prevention and control are incurred by low income and lower-middle income countries.

With the exception of the UK, western economies have largely escaped the full impact of an FMD outbreak for the past few decades. The current available capacity in the insurance markets for FMD-related risk-transfer products reflects that.

However, there is no escaping that the FMD virus remains among the most contagious – and therefore an active threat to livestock owners – and the cost of a national herd infection is likely to be measured in the billions of dollars.


Head of Bloodstock, Estates, Livestock and Aquaculture (BELA)


Executive Director, Marine

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