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  • Arresting Contagion: Science, Policy, and Conflicts over Animal Disease Control by Alan L. Olsmstead and Paul W. Rhode
  • Thaddeus Sunseri
Alan L. Olsmstead and Paul W. Rhode. Arresting Contagion: Science, Policy, and Conflicts over Animal Disease Control. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015. x + 465 pp. Ill. $49.95 (978-0-674-72877-6).

Arresting Contagion details tells how a well-financed federal veterinary infrastructure can push back, and in many cases eradicate, animal pathogens from within a country’s borders by applying police powers and scientific breakthroughs. Its focus is the Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI), a U.S. federal agency within the Department of Agriculture, created in 1884 and lasting until 1953, when it was reorganized as the Agricultural Research Service. The authors argue that under American circumstances of a decentralized state structure, federal intervention in the form of an agency with substantial research and enforcement capabilities was absolutely necessary to push back myriad livestock diseases, many of which threatened human health in the form of unhygienic meat or milk or by directly transferring pathogens. The BAI faced opposition from ranchers and farmers, railroads, meatpackers, livestock brokers, and state governments that resented and resisted draconian federal intervention, which often included quarantining states or regions, and culling whole herds of cattle or hogs to eliminate contagions.

Emerging at a time when germ theory was poorly understood and denied by many, and in light of multiple livestock diseases, including contagious bovine pleuro-pneumonia (CBPP), hog cholera, bovine tuberculosis, Texas fever, trichinosis, and foot-and-mouth disease, the BAI was “a landmark in the history of [End Page 821] federal regulation” (p. 11), preceding by a few years the Interstate Commerce Commission that is usually considered the hallmark of big government. Forcefully opposed by proponents of states’ rights, the BAI was born in crisis, when CBPP, a highly infectious bacterial disease, erupted in the Midwest and threatened the open-range herds of the far West and the meatpacking industry. CBPP was known to have wiped out the herds of South Africa and Australia, and, besides threatening the American food supply, led Europeans to restrict livestock imports, impairing a major sector of the American export economy. Despite poor funding and limited initial powers to intervene in and between states, by 1892 the BAI succeeded in eradicating CBPP from the United States through quarantines, culling, trade restrictions, veterinary inspections, and partial compensation to encourage reporting. The BAI negotiated complex issues of cooperation with the states and private interests. The CBPP success led to greater funding for the BAI by the turn of the century, at a time when its scientists made major breakthroughs in the understanding of disease etiology, most notably with Texas fever, which had impaired the free flow of cattle from the enzootic South. Many former BAI opponents in private industry, the states, and Congress became converts to its efficacy in combating livestock diseases for the public good.

Although the authors offer international comparisons of how livestock disease control policies could take different trajectories in different countries, and make clear that many BAI veterinarians were trained in Europe, this is primarily an American story for American conditions, particularly the political challenge of navigating intricate federal–state–private sector tensions. The authors seem unaware of the German precedent in eradicating rinderpest from their Continental domains by 1881, a few years before the BAI’s founding, using similar “stamping out” policies. Although not primarily concerned with livestock disease etiologies, Arresting Contagion is an immensely informative and valuable investigation of the pivotal role of government in acting in the public good, arguing against those scholars and politicians who see government bureaucracy as motivated primarily by its own self-perpetuation. From a cost-benefit analysis, the elimination or curbing of livestock diseases, despite enormous expense and often harsh intervention backed by police power, was repaid many times over by saving millions of lives, opening up markets, increasing animal productivity, and making scientific breakthroughs that could be applied to new circumstances. At a time when the world is threatened continuously by zoonoses like Ebola virus, mad cow disease, SARS, MERS, and avian influenza; when the globalization of the food supply increases the risk of...


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pp. 821-822
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