You're probably familiar with the old axiom “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It's a handy phrase to help convince kids to take some bad-tasting medicine, to eat an apple a day or to buckle a seat belt.

We accept the premise that a bit of precaution outweighs the painful consequences that could befall us if we fail to take certain steps.

The phrase fits, I think, with the challenge of keeping foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) out of the U.S. livestock industry. Nearly five months have passed since the FMD outbreak occurred in the United Kingdom (U.K.). News flashes have subsided. Photojournalists no longer file pictures of the animal pyres and burial grounds. It's old news — and that's bad news.

One slip, one disinterested customs agent, one undetected foreign visitor carrying a meat product and BAM! — the U.S. livestock industry will be thrown into chaos, and export doors will slam shut.

Consider this, in the first 100 days after the outbreak, the number of cases in Great Britain grew to more than 1,700; more than three million animals have been sacrificed. Meat export markets have closed; tourism is reeling from the sting of lost revenues.

Even more unsettling, the number of FMD cases in Uruguay (1,600) and Argentina (1,200) is rapidly approaching the U.K. caseload. The disease is endemic in several countries. The global FMD situation is hardly stable.

We were all sensitized to the severe devastation of this disease because it broke in an English-speaking country. Now that the drama and emotion has faded, the news media have lost interest and moved quickly on to the next breaking story that will boost their ratings or their circulation.

To use another cliché — “out of sight, out of mind.” It's human nature, I suppose, to think the problem has been solved. Each day, as the memory of carcass burning and burying fades, indifference sets in, and that could be our biggest enemy.

Costs Continue to Climb

Britain's drastic attempts to bring the FMD outbreak to bay have coupled with consumer fears about mad cow disease, and the results are showing up at the retail meat counter. Depending on the report you read, red meat consumption in the U.K. has dropped from 5% to 15%. One report exclaims: “One million families have stopped eating red meat (beef, lamb, pork).”

Normally, British consumers spend about $16 billion annually at the meat counter. That's why Britain's Meat & Livestock Commission is pleading with the government to spend nearly $36 million on a marketing campaign to reassure consumers that their meat supply is safe.

For those of you who missed British correspondent John Gadd's weekly www.nationalhogfarmer.com update on the FMD situation from Dorset, England, he shared these cost estimates the last week of May: 1,800 government and private veterinarians have worked on containing the disease; estimated compensation to farmers, to date, exceeds $2.1 billion (that's in American greenbacks); estimated losses to tourism, $7.8 billion, plus another $1.5 billion consequential losses for cancelled events, cost of containment, etc.

In all, the cost to every man, woman and child in Britain is estimated at $225 this year, with more costs spread across the next couple of years.

Are We Prepared?

It's true that emergency plans are in place to quickly contain an outbreak should one occur in the U.S. But, will we recognize it if it comes? How many of us, or our veterinarians, have ever actually seen FMD or hog cholera or African swine fever? Few, I'm sure.

The FMD incubation period can be just a few hours or up to five days — possibly even 21 days. The virus spreads rapidly by air, animal contact, meat products, clothing, equipment, vehicles and semen. It likes high humidity, moderate temperatures, and under those conditions it can be spread more than 20 miles airborne. And, when the disease infects pigs, they produce virus aerosols 3,000 times more concentrated than cattle, says John Carr, DVM, at Iowa State.

What if there was a lapse in discovering FMD, say in North Carolina? Considering about 2 million pigs a year are sent out of state for finishing destinations elsewhere — mostly in the Midwest — the spread could be swift and dramatic.

I'm not crying wolf here. Government officials have prepared for the worst — an outbreak. If a break occurred, I'm sure emergency funds would flow quickly toward containing and then eradicating the disease. Why not spend more of those emergency dollars now, making sure we never face the crisis of an outbreak? Surely, the cost of turning up the security to keep this and other diseases out can be done at the fraction of the cost of containing and eradicating a disease.

If you don't believe me, ask the Brits.