The fever on the farm
The riots were in their 13th year. Two federal officials had recently been shot, and one of them had died from his injuries, but the local grand jury, drawn from an aggrieved and angry community, refused to indict the shooter. The year was 1922, and farming communities across the United States were vigorously resisting new regulations imposed by the Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI) that were intended to eradicate a parasitic infection known as Texas fever in domestic cattle.
Arresting Contagion is at once a biography (even a hagiography) of the BAI and a penetrating glimpse into the behavioral economics that defined early animal disease control efforts in the United States. The book begins in the late 19th century, a time of enormous innovation in agriculture and infrastructure. Animals were bred and killed on an unprecedented scale and transported over vast distances, both domestically and internationally. This created enormous opportunities for diseases—including Texas fever, contagious bovine pleuropneumonia (lung plague), bovine tuberculosis, pork measles, and hog cholera—to emerge and spread. The book focuses on how some of these devastating livestock diseases were progressively controlled—a story that is complete with setbacks and victories, heroes and villains.
From 1904 to 1915, James Dorsey, who falls firmly into the villain category, did a good trade in cheap cattle that had failed a tuberculin test, passing them off as healthy animals to unsuspecting farmers. This practice created at least 10,000 foci of tuberculosis among dairy herds across the United States and likely contributed to tens of thousands of cases of human tuberculosis (1). Compared to “TB James,” Typhoid Mary was an amateur.
A pleasant contrast to Dorsey can be found in Daniel E. Salmon, who became the first person to be awarded a veterinary degree in the United States in 1876 and was appointed the first chief of the BAI in 1884. Within eight years of his appointment, lung plague had been eradicated in the United States. Under his leadership, veterinary scientists showed medical researchers the way by demonstrating that insect vectors could transmit disease, developing the first killed vaccine, and identifying the human hookworm parasite. Salmonella bacteria, discovered by his research group in 1885, were named after him in 1900.
In their book, Olmstead and Rhode probe the motives that drive individuals to comply with, or reject, efforts to mitigate animal disease transmission. These motives are both fascinating and, more often than not, uncomfortably predictable. For example, many men who made money moving cattle refused to believe in contagions altogether. In the early 1880s, Chicago stockyard owners argued that their animals were in perfect health and that it would be financial suicide for them to sell unwholesome meat. Yet, inspections conducted in September 1886 revealed an industry plagued by filth and disease, a condition that persisted until federal legislation was established and regular, mandatory inspections were instituted. The authors make a strong case that disease is too important to leave to market forces and that the government has an essential role in controlling zoonotic disease.
In addition to regulation, the authors emphasize the need to incentivize farmers and merchants to comply with health and safety regulations. For example, in the 1920s, after their own cattle had been cleansed of Texas fever, farmers started to demand vociferously that disease control be mandated for still-infected cattle populations, which were now a major threat for disease reintroduction. Compensation for culled animals and the (limited) legal provisions that entitle farmers to recover damages from disease are also well addressed in the book.
Written by two economists, the book features a number of terms that may not be familiar to readers from health backgrounds, such as “externalities,” “rent-seeking,” and “public choice theory.” There are also occasional infelicities of phrasing: Cattle herds are ravished (rather than ravaged) by disease, and scientists attain notoriety (rather than fame) from their discoveries. Apart from these quibbles, the book is comprehensive, is well written, and contains a substantial amount of original research. This, along with extensive notes and references, will make it useful to those who are grappling with the recent resurgence in zoonotic diseases brought about by the rapid expansion of the livestock sector in developing countries and elsewhere.
- ↵ National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Bureau of Animal Industry, Chief of the Bureau to Fitts, 9 July 1920.