Israels beefed up vigilance blocks widespread epidemic

JERUSALEM — Lamb and beef are still favorite choices at fast-food eateries and restaurants here, and for the barbeques cooked up at home.

That is because Israel has been unaffected by the mad cow and foot and mouth disease epidemics that have hit Britain and Europe, causing beef consumption to fall by as much as 80 percent in Germany. The tourist industry may very well have a unique opportunity to offer meat-starved Brits and Europeans a "Carnivore Holiday" package to the Land of Milk and Honey!

Newspapers carry front-page stories of panic in Britain and Europe as a result of the rapid spread of foot and mouth disease — the fast-moving, virulent virus that threatens cloven-hoof animals (cow, sheep, pigs, goats and deer). 50,000 animals have already been killed in Britain, and the virus has already spread to Scotland and Ireland. France also plans to slaughter some 50,000 cows, sheep and pigs.

The foot and mouth disease virus is rarely fatal, except in about 5 percent of very young and very old animals. Its symptoms are tell-tale blisters and sores on hooves, snouts, mouths and tongues, as well as loss of appetite; animals often get severe foot infections and go lame, and there is decreased milk yield from dairy cows.

The disease is extremely contagious. Although it is not dangerous to people (children who hold infected animals may get some flu-like symptoms), it can be carried by people, cars, clothes, manure, water, hay, birds and even the air. Coming on the heels of the mad cow epidemic, a fatal brain disease affecting cattle, it threatens to bring major economic losses to European farmers and is the worst agricultural crisis in E.U. history.

Why, then, is Israel not panicking? "Israel spends about $1 million every year to vaccinate cattle, sheep, goats and pigs for three different variants of the foot and mouth virus," said Dr. Oded Nir, director of veterinary services and animal health at the Israel Kimron Veterinary Institute in Bet Dagan, a research facility under the aegis of the Ministry of Agriculture. "The population is immune."

Europe, generally, stopped vaccinating its herds, explained Nir, as there had been no cases of foot and mouth disease in England for 20 years. Israel does not export beef, but does export dairy products to the US and Europe. "If there is any problem within 25 kilometers [15.5 miles] of a dairy plant, we stop exporting from that plant and animals are put in incubation for 10 days," said Nir. "If Israel has one case of foot and mouth disease — there hasn't been any for 18 months — it is called an outbreak."

The Israel Kimron Veterinary Institute is recognized as a leading researcher in veterinary science, and has a long record of vigilance. "To the best of my knowledge, and in the 40 years I have been working here, we have never had a case of mad cow disease in Israel," said Nir. "Live cattle have not been imported from Great Britain since 1974. Bovine meat has not been imported from England since 1986, with an official ban applied in 1989."

The import of both live cattle and sheep and bovine meat to Israel is very strictly regulated. Israel only imports meat from countries with no history of mad cow disease, and puts an age limit on slaughtered animals — 30 months from non-European countries, and 24 months from Europe, according to a recent report. This is because old cows are at a higher risk of developing mad cow disease as the disease has a five-year dormant period.

Veal, however, from calves which are fed milk and milk products only and slaughtered by the age of six months, may be imported according to required protocol. As of January 1, 2001, Israel had already tightened its policy on the import of live heifers: no heifers are imported from Europe. Australia has been a major source for live beef and sheep for slaughter in recent years, while frozen beef is imported from South America.

BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) the official name of mad cow disease, can affect humans. The human version, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Variant disease, has killed people in Britain, France and Ireland. Victims face a nasty and speedy demise caused by tiny prions that penetrate the brain leading to dementia, coma and death. There is no treatment.

Diagnosing mad cow disease is only possible after death and this test has been performed at the Institute since 1992 on the brains of animals exhibiting nervous symptoms.

"The clinical monitoring and reporting system in the Israeli cattle industry is probably among the most efficient in the world," stated Nir, "because it is handled by one organization. The industry is very motivated to have a good reputation. That is why it is bending backwards to prevent disease. There are advantages of being like one big family."