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Florida on lookout for disease

Still battling citrus canker, the state is now worried foot-and-mouth disease could hop a ride on an unsuspecting tourist's pant leg and strike Florida farms.

"Florida is ground zero for foot-and-mouth disease," said Martha Roberts, a deputy commissioner in the state Department of Agriculture. "We're under a very real threat."

England's first case of foot-and-mouth in more than 30 years was reported Feb. 20, and 300,000 animals have been killed or marked for destruction since then. The virus is highly contagious, striking cloven-hoofed animals like sheep, cows and pigs.

Farmers across the 15-nation European Union are being hit by controls on animal movements and import bans imposed by nations around the world. Six cases of foot-and-mouth were discovered in France, but otherwise the disease does not appear to be spreading to the continent.

Florida has more international ports and airports than any other state, making it vulnerable to the disease, which can be spread by travelers' clothing or shoes. Fourteen flights arrive daily from the United Kingdom.

"If foot-and-mouth disease was to enter our state, it would be a catastrophe," Roberts said during an agriculture workshop at the Florida Federal/State Summit.

State Agriculture Commissioner Terry Rhodes plans to assist the U.S. Department of Agriculture in increasing inspections at Florida ports and wants passengers arriving from countries infected with the disease to walk through disinfectant upon arrival.