Words, as we know, have the power to foster understanding and also the power to confuse or mislead. In the realm of disease, that confusion was evident during the 2010 pandemic of H1N1 influenza, when use of the term “swine flu” damaged pork demand as consumers feared they could contract the disease from pork.
During the recent Foot and Mouth Disease Symposium (FMD) held in conjunction with the National Institute for Animal Agriculture’s annual conference, California dairyman and cheese producer Chuck Ahlem made the case for renaming FMD, which he referred to as hoof and mouth disease (HMD), a term that has been in use, but is less common.
Ahlem is owner of Hilmar Cheese, which began in 1984 as a means for his family’s dairy to add value to their high-quality Jersey milk. Since then, the operation has grown to include 240 cooperating dairies and ships cheese and other dairy products across the United States and internationally. The company brings in 200 tanker loads of milk every day, so naturally they are concerned about the possibility of an FMD (or HMD) outbreak interfering with shipments. The company has a disease-response plan in place including biosecurity measures on the dairy, full traceability for cattle and a system for contacting every employee quickly with a single phone call or e-mail.
Ahlem’s suggestion for changing the terminology stems from potential confusion between FMD, which is not transmissible to humans, and “hand, foot and mouth disease,” which affects humans but not animals. The similarity in terminology will create confusion, he says, leading to lost demand for meat and dairy products in the case of an outbreak. The term “hoof and mouth disease” creates an association with animals, perhaps reducing concerns over human illness.
The concerns over consumer confusion are justified. Earlier in the conference, Gay Miller, DVM, PhD, from the University of Illinois’ College of Veterinary Medicine cited research showing 72 percent of U.S. consumers think FMD affects humans, 61 percent believe they could contract the virus from meat and 42 percent say they would stop drinking milk in the event of an FMD outbreak.
Unfortunately, the foot-and-mouth terminology is well established. Even if the industry uniformly decided to begin using HMD, we probably would have as much success convincing the media and the general public as the pork folks did when they tried to convince them to use “H1N1” instead of “swine flu.”
The rename could be worth discussing though, as the difference in one word might change consumer perceptions of the nature of the disease.