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Maff chief regrets 'medieval' pyres

Foot and mouth caught ministry out, farmers told

Special report: foot and mouth

Jeevan Vasagar
Saturday May 12, 2001
The Guardian

A senior Ministry of Agriculture official has admitted the government used "medieval" methods in handling the foot and mouth crisis and that Maff had not prepared contingency plans for an outbreak of the size it faced this spring.

Michael Tas, Maff director of disposal operations, told Devon farmers that pyres of animal carcasses - which were criticised for emitting potentially carcinogenic chemicals - were badly outdated.

"We are still using medieval technology in the 21st century. We have a lot to learn about safely incinerating animals in the open."

Dr Tas said delays in disposal, which had led to thousands of carcasses rotting in fields, had been caused by Maff focusing on its slaughter deadline. He added: "Maff had no contingency plans for the size and speed of this outbreak."

He also admitted that a method of confirming a case of foot and mouth within two or three hours, which had been pioneered in the US, had not been looked at because Maff did not have the time or the scientists to look at it properly.

His comments came as Maff admitted that nearly a third of the animals slaughtered had later proved negative in tests. The slaughter of these animals will cost the taxpayer up to 200m in compensation.

Speaking to a group of farmers near Ashburton on Thursday night, he said: "The institute of animal health in Pirbright, Surrey, was having to deal with 60,000 samples a week. They had no space and no time and no spare scientists to work with the Americans to validate their tests. It is another unfortunate missed opportunity."

Dr Tas is one of Maff's most senior officials and a regular member of the government committee which handles the day to day efforts to fight the outbreak. He had agreed to answer questions about the use of Heathfield landfill site in Newton Abbot for carcass disposal but he was forced to answer questions about the whole outbreak.

Devon has been one of the worst hit counties and has had 162 cases so far.

Anthony Gibson, regional director of the NFU in the south west, said it was "entirely correct" that Maff had no plans for the scale and speed of the outbreak. "The problem was that even after it was pointed out to them that they were failing to come to terms with it they did nothing about it until it was very nearly too late.

"And then when they did finally get around to tracking the disease properly things got so bad that they had to embark on contiguous culling. It entailed killing tens of thousands of healthy animals which would have been unnecessary if they had acted with more urgency from the outset.

"We were on to Maff in the second week that they had to bring the army in. It was ridiculous to expect vets to be building pyres."