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Proposed foot-and-mouth disease vaccine bank nothing to joke about

When many Americans hear "foot-and-mouth disease," they chuckle and think of people with the unfortunate tendency to say the wrong thing at the wrong time.

But the term is no laughing matter to the U.S. livestock industry. Ranchers, veterinarians and others in agriculture know that foot-and-mouth disease is serious and potentially could do huge damage to the ag economy — and the U.S. economy in general.

So we're intrigued by the livestock industry's proposal for $850 million in federal funding to protect against the disease. More than 100 industry leaders and agricultural groups — including the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, National Pork Producers Council, the American Sheep Industry Association and the National Milk Producers Federation — are asking Congress to include the following in the 2018 farm bill:

• $750 million over five years for an enhanced Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) Vaccine Bank.

• $30 million for the National Animal Health Laboratory Network.

• $70 million in grants for state animal health agencies to improve their ability to respond to a foreign animal disease breakout.

That's a lot of money, to say the least.

But far more money could be lost if the disease breaks out in the U.S. Industry officials estimate an $128 billion — yes, billion — economic hit on the beef and pork sectors if the disease flares up in the United States. They also point to huge economic losses from FMD in both the United Kingdom and South Korea.

A little background: FMD, a highly contagious viral disease, doesn't affect people. Nor is it considered a public health or food safety threat. But animals with divided hoofs, including, cows, pigs and sheep, become sick from it, and infected animals usually must be killed.

It hasn't been a problem in the United States; it's been considered to be eradicated from the U.S. since 1929. But it's found elsewhere in the world, and the legitimate fear is that it could spread here.

If there were a large-scale outbreak in the United States, the existing FMD vaccine bank — managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services at Plum Island, N.Y. — wouldn't be big enough to cope, livestock industry officials say.

So funding a bigger, better FMD vaccine bank would be a wise and prudent investment, they say.

We don't know enough yet to say whether we support the livestock industry's $850-million request. Perhaps a lesser amount, or spreading the $850 million over more than five years, might suffice. Nor do we know if there's enough political support to win approval.

But we sure of this:

Foot-and-mouth disease is no joke. As work on the 2018 farm bill intensifies, the livestock industry's proposal should be taken seriously.