S. Korea's FMD outbreak turns into economic, social catastrophe

16:58, January 28, 2011      

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South Korea's worst-ever foot-and- mouth disease (FMD) epidemic has grown into a social and economic disaster, especially with the Lunar New Year holiday approaching, as the disease has dealt a heavy blow to meat prices and supplies. The outbreak, the fifth in South Korea since 2000 and by far the severest, was first confirmed on Nov. 29 last year in Andong, North Gyeongsang province, and has spread to eight cities and provinces so far.

The total number of animals, mainly pigs and cattle, that have been put down due to the highly contagious animal disease and efforts to contain its spread seems to be several million and growing. The disease is also estimated to have caused more than 1. 7 trillion won in damage, including direct expenses and compensation to farmers, according to the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

Meat prices have soared as the country's massive cull against FMD has resulted in a meat shortage. The country's largest cull in the history is a cause of grave concern because the meat shortage, which adds to heavy inflation on food prices, could draw a major setback for President Lee Myung-bak's vow to limit inflation below 3 percent.

Wholesale pork prices reached a record high of 7,137 won (about 6.4 U.S. dollars) per kilogram as of Jan. 27, and the average price of pork between Jan. 1 and Jan. 27 stood at about 5,644 won per kilogram, up 53 percent from the last month's average, according to the Korea Institute for Animal Products Quality Evaluation.

As rising meat prices coincide with the preparations for the Lunar New Year, when meat is an essential component of the ancestral rites table, many South Koreans are viewing next week's holiday with the great alarm owing to the unparalleled rise in the cost of living. "It's hard to purchase meat to prepare for ancestral rites on Lunar New Year's day because of foot-and-mouth disease, and prices of fish products also have generally risen. I' m worried because more than one-third of goods are more expensive than last year. It's really hard," Tae Jung-hee, 53, who was shopping in Namdaemun market in central Seoul, said.

There is also serious concern for the future of the country's livestock industry, with exports likely to suffer long-term declines. In a desperate attempt to curtail the spread of FMD, the government had initiated a vaccination campaign targeting only cattle on Dec. 25 at the cost of losing its FMD-free status and thereby risked a longer export ban by overseas buyers. As its efforts turned out to be inadequate, the government decided to vaccinate all livestock in the country.

In Anseong a city 100 km south of Seoul in the southern part of Gyeonggi province, approximately 60 percent of the city's swine and 2.5 percent of cattle have been culled so far, according to Kim Jong-su, director of livestock at Anseong City Hall.

The city confirmed its first case of FMD on Jan. 6. Kim said a cold snap, in which temperatures have been below freezing for the past few weeks, contributed difficulties combating the spread because hoses and pumps for spraying disinfectant have been frozen. The city has set up 34 quarantine guard posts on the roadside to disinfect passing vehicles.

Anseong Mayor Hwang Eun-sung said the most important thing right now is to figure out the exact cause of FMD. "We can deal with the result once we know the cause. It is still vaguely believed that FMD spreads through cars or people, and if we don't draw up decisive measures based on the exact cause any time soon, the situation is expected to be more difficult," Hwang said.

The disease has devastated the livelihoods of the country's livestock breeders. Many livestock buildings are now empty as the government has embarked on the major cull. Lee Kye-chan, 82, said his son's cattle as well as those of his neighbors had been lost to FMD and that they are distraught at losing their animals. "He is devastated. There are 70 cattle left, and he can't be at ease," Lee said.

FMD, while highly infectious among cattle, sheep, pigs and other cloven hoofed animals, does not affect humans. South Korea was hit by the disease in 2000, 2002 and twice early last year.

Source: Xinhua

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