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Mad cull disease still rages, and logic is no cure for it

Magnus Linklater

Times Feb 18 2004

I think I can face, dry-eyed, the impending retirement of Sir Ben Gill as President of the National Farmers’ Union. His term of office has been a bloodstained one. He took over in the aftermath of BSE when 4.4 million cattle were slaughtered. He presided over the elimination of seven million animals during the foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2001. He has chosen to mark his retirement by getting in a dig at the Prince of Wales for promoting the humane alternative of vaccination. He signs off by calling for a mass cull of badgers to contain the spread of bovine TB. And he underlines his commitment to killing by producing a quote worthy of Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, : “If we’d vaccinated, we’d never have proved that the disease was under control.”

Yes, truly, death has a wonderful finality about it. I am sure that the owners of those millions of perfectly healthy sheep, sacrificed at a cost of some £9 billion in order to protect an export market of barely £570 million a year will derive great comfort from Sir Ben’s pronouncement that, unless you kill the animals, you cannot prove that you have beaten the disease.

It would be nice to record that, with his departure, a little more science and a little less bloodlust can be brought to bear on the matter of controlling animal diseases. Nobody wants ever again to see those blazing funeral pyres, the vile burial pits which are still, three years on, polluting the land, the deadly incompetence of the ministry’s killers, the trauma which left deep emotional scars on farming families throughout the affected countryside.

And yet, despite three reports on the outbreak and its aftermath, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has made no discernible progress towards finding a better means of controlling it. The first case was confirmed on February 20, three years ago. If, God forbid, another one were identified tomorrow, the same wretched steps would still be taken. Once again, if it spread, we would see the infamous three-kilometre firebreaks thrown around infected farms, with every animal, sick or not, killed within it.

The evidence from last time shows that these so-called contiguous culls were ineffective — the figures for infected animals were dropping before they were introduced. Vaccination, which would bring the epidemic to an end without the need for slaughter, is still only “being considered” as an option. Oh yes, there has been one advance. Officials at Defra learnt, belatedly, that the slaughter of healthy animals was almost certainly illegal under the 1981 Animal Health Act. So it has been amended. The Animal Health Act 2002 now legalises such killing.

The contingency plans for a future outbreak are cast in belligerent language. They speak of war and peace. Next time there will be a “war cabinet” to ensure that the slaughter is carried out more quickly. The Army will be on standby from the start. The bureaucratic procedures have been tightened. This contrasts sharply with the prevailing mood outside Britain. In Europe, vaccination is now to be a requirement should the disease threaten to spread — and Britain will be forced into line whether it likes it or not. A European directive, couched in humanitarian language, says that measures to combat animal diseases “must not be based purely on commercial interests”. It requires member countries to “take genuine account of ethical principles”. In the Netherlands, where they vaccinated and then killed, farmers are determined that, next time, they will vaccinate to keep their animals alive.

Foot-and-mouth, it seems, is not quite the scourge that Sir Ben and his colleagues feared. All the scientific evidence now shows that vaccinated animals are safe to consume, and the EU waiting time between vaccination and exporting meat again has been reduced to six months. This means that, with vaccination, farmers would have to wait only three more months for the export market to be restored than they would have had to wait under a slaughter policy.

So why the insistence on killing? My view is that too many reputations are at stake for a climbdown — yet. Sooner or later, however, the truth will out. I trust Sir Ben will accept it gracefully.