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Dairy interests seek help in reducing animal disease

WASHINGTON -- May 29, 2000 -- Farmers and the dairy industry asked Congress Tuesday to fund a seven-year, $1.3 billion program to kill off parts of the U.S. dairy herd infected by a bacterium also found in some humans with chronic bowel disease.

Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chairman of a House livestock subcommittee, said the plan could be included in this year's farm bill, but would have to include both beef and dairy cattle to be an effective way of reducing animal disease rates.

"I think it does have a chance," said Pombo, who opened hearings recently to find out what farmers and other interests want in a new "market-based" farm bill the GOP leadership is vowing to produce.

Mark Furth, general manager of Associated Milk Producers in New Ulm, Minn., said a priority for dairy farmers would be a national program to reduce the prevalence of debilitating Johne's disease in cattle.

"I must ask you to consider the increasing threat of disease on today's dairy industry," Furth said. He said Johne's is a slow-developing wasting disease that cuts down on milk production.

Donald De Jong, owner of a 2,000-head dairy farm in Dublin, Texas, said farmers won't have any incentive to join in the program without a compensation plan that would pay for removal of animals found infected. De Jong testified as a representative of both the Texas Association of Dairymen and the Diary Producers of New Mexico.

De Jong said the plan calls for putting infected cows into rendering plants so the program would not adversely affect meat prices. About half of dairy cattle end up as hamburger meat.

A 1996 U.S. Department of Agriculture study estimated that 22 percent of dairy farms have more than 10 percent of their herds infected with Johne's disease, which causes diarrhea.

The same tuberculosis-like bacterium that causes Johne's in cattle has been found in the bowels of some human sufferers of Crohn's disease, a chronic bowel disease that affects more than 500,000 Americans.

But there's a contentious debate whether people are picking up the bacterium from milk and meat, or are getting it from contaminated water or other environmental sources. Preliminary results of British tests this year found that the bacterium can survive commercial pasteurization.

The main way Johne's is transmitted between cattle is when an animal eats grass or some other food that is contaminated by feces from a sick animal.

Calvin Covington, chief executive officer of Southeast Milk, Inc. of Ocala, Fla., representing the South East Dairy Association, said in written testimony that Johne's disease is an animal health issue causing increasing economic damage to the industry.

"The disease has no effective cure, and vaccines developed to date are of limited efficacy," he said. Covington said consigning infected cows to rendering plants would "avoid any perception that animals testing positive for Johne's had subsequently entered the food supply."

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