WASHINGTON – When there were fears of a foot-and-mouth outbreak in the Midwest this summer, the White House received secret briefings that highlighted the potential for old farm diseases to be new national security threats.
The suspected outbreak in Minnesota of the disease, which does not affect humans, never materialized. Yet federal officials said their concerns showed how the government probably would respond to a foot-and-mouth epidemic. The disease strikes cloven-hoofed animals including cows, sheep, pigs and goats and can have a major economic impact.
"We wanted to keep it quiet to the extent we could so it wouldn't cause any panic or economic impact but make sure the people who would be most concerned like the president or the secretary knew what we were doing," said Roger Rufe, director of operations coordination at the Homeland Security Department.
The incident began June 26 in Austin, Minn., known as "Spamtown, USA" because it is home to Hormel Foods Corp., which makes the canned meat product.
A shipment of about 200 pigs had come into a slaughterhouse, and an inspector noticed suspicious lesions on some.
The symptoms indicated possible foot-and-mouth disease. It is one of the most feared animal diseases because it so highly contagious. The U.S. has not had an outbreak since 1929; Britain had one this summer.
Once the inspector raised the alarm, federal authorities quarantined the animals and began testing. They also notified Homeland Security officials, who coordinated the response through their National Operations Center.
The information was kept secret out of fear it could cause consumer panic and spook investors.
Rufe and others DHS officials briefed White House anti-terrorism officials while they waited for test results back from a government lab on Plum Island, N.Y.
In bracing for the worst, officials wanted to avoid the kind of short-lived rumors of a foot-and-mouth outbreak such as the one in 2002 that cost the beef industry an estimated $50 million.
They also sought out any possible intelligence on terrorist links.
"One of the first things you have to worry about in these cases is, if it was foot-and-mouth, was it an attack?" Rufe said.
The federal effort quickly expanded beyond national security and agriculture officials to include the departments of State, Transportation, and Health and Human Services.
Dr. John Clifford, the Agriculture Department's chief veterinary officer, said his staff usually does 400 to 500 animal disease investigations a year. Most are much less serious matters involving individual farms.
The chief difference in the Minnesota case, Clifford said, was that it involved a slaughter facility "where you had a congregation of animals and a movement of animals, versus on a farm."
About 200 pigs were quarantined in Minnesota. Animals in Iowa that had shared space with those pigs were also isolated.
Officials scrambled to trace the pigs' path from Canada.
Canadian inspectors visited the pigs' source and found nothing amiss, Clifford said.
Within about two days of the initial alert, lab testing determined the infection was not foot-and-mouth disease, and the government issued a short statement to quell local rumors. A few days later, further testing confirmed the lesions resulted from an illness that did not threaten humans or the livestock industry.
Heidi Kassenborg, a disease expert at Minnesota's Agriculture Department, said the false alarm ended up as a good test, revealing gaps in communication systems and the need for additional training.
Rufe said that in the past, Homeland Security rarely became involved in such cases. He said the government's intense and silent mobilization to the foot-and-mouth scare showed it is improving its crisis response systems after years of criticism and doubt.
"It's been highlighted in Hurricane Katrina and highlighted in every major disaster that you need someone to coordinate all that and bring it together," he said. "This was a good chance for us to work on that and get it smoothed out."