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    Florida airports: Virus entries?

    Skimpy inspection teams at 3 Florida airports precede foot-mouth prevention efforts.

    By JEAN HELLER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 31, 2001


    TAMPA -- Florida ports and airports need more help to keep foot-and-mouth disease from entering the United States with international travelers, the state's top agriculture official told her counterpart in Washington on Friday.

    Terry Rhodes, state agriculture commissioner, named Tampa, Orlando and Miami as susceptible entry points. They either have no canine inspection teams, or too few, to adequately search incoming passengers and baggage on airlines and cruise ships for contraband fruits, vegetables and meat. Passengers from infected countries could carry the virus in meat products or on their clothes.

    Meat is a point of particular concern because of recent outbreaks of the disease in the United Kingdom, which has been forced to kill and incinerate cattle to try to bring the disease under control.

    Miami is authorized for 11 canine teams from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's so-called Beagle Brigade but is operating with just four. Units have been on request for Tampa and Orlando for several years -- long predating the recent fears over foot-and-mouth disease -- but none is available yet.

    Florida ranks No. 12 in the nation in beef cattle and No. 14 in dairy cows, according to the state Agriculture Statistics Service. Together they constitute a $2-billion-a-year industry. The introduction of foot-and-mouth disease here could mean the destruction of thousands of head of cattle and pigs.

    "And deer and wild boar also are susceptible," said Terence McElroy, Rhodes' spokesman. "Once it got into the wildlife population, it would be almost impossible to control."

    In a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, Rhodes said she also feared the disease could spread through the careless disposal of trash and garbage from international flights and cruises.

    "We recommend that all trash and garbage generated from any flight arriving from a FMD country be collected . . . to go to incineration," Rhodes wrote.

    Carl Davis, director of agriculture quarantine inspection for the USDA in Tampa said the area that includes Tampa International Airport, St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, the Port of Tampa and Port Manatee, was on the list for at least one Beagle Brigade team, but he did not know when one would become available.

    "Most of the dogs come from animal shelters and go through extensive training, and most don't make the grade, so they're hard to come by," Davis said. "There is also the expense. Each dog is teamed with an officer for life."

    But Davis added he is satisfied that garbage and trash coming in on planes and ships is being handled correctly in this area.

    "All the caterers are under compliance agreements with us, and we do monitor garbage coming off of ships and planes," he said. "It is being disposed of in accordance with those agreements."

    Rhodes wants even more vigilance.

    "This really scares us," McElroy said. "We are checking people and baggage, but that is the obvious place to start. The more insidious way for the disease to get into the country is through the improper disposal of a half-eaten lamb chop."

    While foot-and-mouth disease is harmless to humans, people can carry the virus on their clothes, "or, scientists tell us, even in their throats for up to five days," he added. "No level of vigilance is too high."

    Publicity about the United States confiscating and destroying most of the foods brought into this country by visitors or returning citizens might be having a positive effect on the problem, said Brenda Geoghagan, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority.

    "The inspectors were confiscating meat off our incoming British Airways flights, but the last three haven't had any aboard," Geoghagan said. "Word seems to be getting out not to bring it in."

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