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Vaccinated steak and chips, please

The British beef industry is in decline, but has only itself to blame for short-sightedness

I HOPE YOU ARE enjoying British Food Fortnight, a jaunty promotion aimed at making us all buy good honest home-grown beef, rosy Bramley apples and those fresh-picked vegetables that come straight from farm to supermarket shelf. It is good to know that everyone is behind it — Government, retailers, farmers, producers — and that it has the blessing of the Prince of Wales.

Yet take a closer look at that freeze-wrapped joint of meat. The chances are it came from Ireland, Argentina or Brazil rather than Herefordshire, Aberdeenshire or the Cheviot Hills. British beef is in serious decline. Up and down the country, farmers are pulling out, selling up their herds, leaving the mass market to the mercies of the big food chains, which are turning to South America to fill the gap and hold prices down. Imports from Brazil alone have risen by 20 per cent this year, making that country the third-biggest supplier of beef to the British market. The meat is of lesser quality, it is reared under Third World standards and its production is steadily eroding the rainforest. But it has one irresistible quality. It is cheap. And that, in the cut-throat world of supermarket competition, is the ultimate virtue.

Cheap food, it seems, can overcome a multitude of objections, including even the threat of imported disease. There was a time, after the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001, when the National Farmers’ Union uttered dire warnings about the problems caused by buying meat from countries that vaccinated their herds. Ben Gill, who was then the President of the NFU, gave warning that vaccinated animals might be potential carriers of the disease and that, in any event, the British housewife would never buy their meat. “Vaccination,” he said, “would directly affect the marketing and trading of animals . . . both within the UK, the EU and internationally.” There was a risk that consumer organisations would avoid products from countries that used vaccination, and that “a two-tier food market would develop, leaving farmers in vaccinated areas commercially blighted”.

It was this implacable objection to immunisation as the alternative to mass slaughter that convinced Tony Blair, when he took over the campaign to eradicate foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), that it was pointless to explore the option of vaccinating sheep and cattle rather than killing them. No evidence was produced to show that vaccinated animals carried the disease, yet some six million animals were culled, at massive cost to the farming industry and British tourism.

The final bill has never been fully quantified, not least because the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has tried to conceal the full total of the sums paid out. For a year now, a court ruling that it is liable for payments of £20 million to various contractors in Cumberland has been kept secret, and the judgment was only disclosed last month. With several outstanding cases yet to be decided, the final total runs into many billions of pounds, though a comprehensive account remains to be drawn up.

Meanwhile, Brazil and Argentina, where animals have traditionally and routinely been vaccinated, have stepped up their exports to Europe. Far from being commercially blighted, their beef industries are thriving. It is not always clear which parts of those countries have treated their animals and which have not, though Defra insists that meat is fully inspected at the port of entry, and only imported from FMD-free zones. Controls, however, are only as good as the country that first imported the meat. Once a consignment has crossed an EU border, it can move about with no further checks being made; no reliable figures are available to show how much vaccinated meat is entering the EU or the UK; and there is certainly no information available to the British consumer about the conditions in which South American beef is produced. We might perhaps be told about the wholesale destruction of the Amazonian rainforest, which is the price being paid so that Brazil can extend its grasslands and cater for the world’s appetite for cheap meat; we should perhaps demand information about the wages and conditions paid to workers in Brazil’s farming industry; and does not the Government have a duty to inform us how much vaccination has been carried out, where it is being done, and finally to label the meat from vaccinated herds to assure consumers that it is genuinely safe?

I have little sympathy with the British beef industry in its moment of crisis. It used the market as its shield and protector when it fought off arguments for vaccination in 2001, and if the market has now turned against it, then it only has itself to blame. Farmers who accepted lavish payouts in compensation for their slaughtered herds did little to arm themselves subsequently against foreign competition. If they are to survive, they have to convince Government, retailers and ultimately the public that there is a benefit in maintaining a British beef herd. They might point out that not only does it yield meat of high quality, it is an essential part of the environment — without cattle the countryside would be an empty wilderness.

There is a serious argument to be had about the long-term cost of cheap food. Until it is properly engaged, the rainforests will continue to fall, the risk of uncharted imports will grow and the time may come when the great British Food Fortnight evokes little more than a hollow laugh.


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