warmwell.com

This history of the catastrophe is taken with gratitude from

The Ecologist

BURNT OUT by Dr Richard North

( I add here a summary - and clickable links to main points in Dr North's article)

The beginning of the catastrophe ~ Britain becomes leper of Europe again ~ Labour government secretly welcomed in the crisis ~ the bureaucrats had been at work ~ thousands of massacred animals being left in fields to rot...gruesome stories started emerging ~ a black market in 'black' sheep. EU's sheep subsidy system ~ rumour mill....an intriguing report ~ Nick Brown reacted by extending the killing zones to 2 miles ~ mass vaccination was being seriously discussed ~ naked in tooth and claw ~ Fred Brown, a British scientist suggests a different job for Mr Scudamore -saying " it was 'crazy' not to vaccinate." ~ The killing of agriculture ~ The closure of so many slaughterhouses ~ virtually unrestricted imports, legal and illegal. ~ Hill farmers,unable to live off the income from traditional farming, increased stocking levels ~ There was no 'Plan B'. ~ a rapid vaccination programme could have brought this epidemic to a skidding halt in 30 days

( N.B. Dr North has now sent me an updated version which forms the prologue for his book 'The Death of British Agriculture' due out in the autumn (published by Duckworths). It brings us up to the result of the election and is well worth printing out. Click here to read the updated text without my summary of links.)

BURNT OUT

What can the UK draw from the disaster of foot and mouth? Richard North provides an overview of the lowlights of the last few weeks.

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When, on 19 February, reports came through of a suspected foot and mouth case reported in an abattoir in Essex, few could have realised that this was the start of a crisis which would grip the nation, rock the government and foment near riot in the countryside. Nor could anyone have even guessed at what would come to light as the crisis progressed. Initially, media commentators were quick to pick up the link between the Essex slaughterhouse and the pig farm in Northumberland, which had supplied it with sows. The obvious inferences were drawn. Here, exposed for all to see was the effect of the Ministry of Agriculture's policy of closing down hundreds of small slaughterhouses, necessitating the transport of animals hundreds of miles, taking infection with them and spreading it through the country. But, no sooner had the spotlight settled on Essex and the cluster of cases around the abattoir, than the focus shifted to Carlisle and Longtown market, and then Welshpool market. In a matter of days, the government had imposed a total freeze on animal movements and the countryside was closed for the duration.

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France ordered the slaughter of 20,000 sheep imported from Britain since 1 February, the Netherlands destroyed over 4,000 sheep, deer and other livestock imported from Britain. The EU Commission announced an immediate export ban and, once again, the UK was the 'leper' of Europe.

Meat prices soared as slaughterhouses were closed down, only some of which were reopened under licence to allow a trickle of animals to be killed. Prime Minister Blair blamed the supermarkets for having an 'armlock' on the farmers as the prices climbed higher, while the pundits blamed intensive farming and 'cheap food' for the crisis.

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Politically, the Labour government secretly welcomed in the crisis. On 27 February, it had forced the Countryside Alliance to call off its 'freedom' march, scheduled for 18 March, when more than 500,000 countryfolk were expected to march through the centre of London. Now confined to quarters, they were safely neutralised, leaving the way clear for an early general election on 3 May, a date about as secret as the fact that Friday follows Thursday. And, with a mere 30 outbreaks reported by 1 March, Agriculture Minister Nick Brown was confidently claiming that the outbreak was under control.

Meantime, the government had launched a policy of 'slash and burn', putting flocks and herds in quarantine and moving in with its slaughter teams. Supposedly a welltested policy, based on the experience of the last great epidemic of 1967, it soon transpired that it was anything but 'tried and tested'. In fact, the bureaucrats had been at work, in form of EU Commission officials, codifying procedures in Council Directives 85/511/EEC and 90/423/EEC. Add to that the little known 'groundwater directive' and the scene was set for chaos.

Firstly, with only 200 vets in the field - chasing up over 43,000 sheep from just one market - the rigidity of the rules required an 'official veterinarian' to be present at each of three crucial stages: the testing of the animals, their slaughter and their disposal.

Then, under the influence of the groundwater directive, the government's Environment Agency ignored the experience of 1967, where quick burial was the preferred option, and plumped for open air burning. Soon, the television screens were filled with the awesome spectacle of funeral pyres, with thousands of animals being incinerated in a ghastly, EU inspired ritual.

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But just as quickly came reports of many more thousands of massacred animals being left in fields to rot. Vets who had been to infected sites had to be stood down for five days before going onto a 'clean' site, and the process started to grind to a halt. The Ministry had simply run out of vets.

On Sunday 4 March, the epidemic had risen to 69 confirmed cases and gruesome stories started emerging of bungled kills, with amateur hired killers running amok, blasting pigs with shotguns after they had been stampeded by cattle being killed in their presence.

Despite this, the services of experienced hunt slaughtermen were refused - for fear their use might bolster the pro-hunt lobby at the time the Bill to ban hunting was going through Parliament.

And the number of outbreaks reported rose inexorably. By 8 March, farmers were being told that they faced weeks more of misery as the government's chief vet, Jim Scudamore, warned that the crisis would last a 'long time'. The number of outbreaks had risen to 106 with the epidemic looking distinctly out of control. On 12 March France saw an outbreak of the disease - blamed on the import of live sheep from England. Ireland and then the Netherlands reported outbreaks. Numbers continued rising in the UK, with a spread into Scotland, Wales and most areas of England. Things were looking even bleaker. Losses, by then were multiplying, tourism was badly affected and when, by 18 March, outbreaks topped 300, the bill was estimated at #9 billion, with no end in sight.

The Government was increasingly being accused of incompetence and Scudamore was co-opted to visit farmers in Cumbria to justify the government's 'pre-emptive strike'.

He was heard to complain that the Ministry was having difficulty tracing many of the sheep suspected of carrying the disease, attributing the problem to 'the lack of movement documentation for many animals'.

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The situation had now got so bad that, on 15 March, MAFF announced plans for a 'pre-emptive strike', the indiscriminate killing of all animals in the 3km zones around infected farms. Up to a million sheep were to die and, although cattle were originally included, Nick Brown had to issue a hasty retraction, adding to the sense of crisis and confusion. Part of the reason for the focus on sheep was the EU's sheep subsidy system which had encouraged a few 'rogue' dealers to shift ewes around the country to gather more subsidies than they had qualifying sheep. A new meaning to the term 'bed and breakfasting' broke into the public consciousness, as it was learned that sheep were trucked into fields overnight, ready for visiting inspectors to count, only to be moved on the next day to be counted again in a different field - a black market in 'black' sheep.

As prime minister Blair jetted off to an EU Summit in Stockholm, dropping in to see farmers in a carefully stagemanaged visit on the way, his election plans were beginning to look decidedly shaky. In Stockholm, he was caught out confiding with Commission president Romano Prodi that he had ten days to decide whether to go ahead.

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Back home, Blair made another stagemanaged visit to the countryside - taking care not to meet real farmers. Thus armed, he decided to take charge, to be rewarded with a tally of 587 outbreaks. Needless to say, the rumour mill had been running in overdrive - as it always does in crisis situations - and all sorts of theories were advanced as to the cause of the epidemic. These ranged from the intervention of Saddam Hussein to animal rights terrorists deliberately releasing a virus stolen from the government's biological warfare laboratory at Porton Down. Dismissed as 'urban myths', there were nevertheless persistent reports that the government had had prior knowledge of the epidemic - and had even warned other countries. Irish farmers were warned to improve their 'biosecurity' and, back on 18 January, the EU Commission had voted to spend #270,000 on testing the potency of emergency vaccine stocks.

Then there was an intriguing report that the MAFF had ordered 'infected area' road signs from an Irish manufacturer, six weeks before the outbreak, while a MAFF official was overheard on a train predicting 'uproar' when it was discovered that 'Tony' had known about foot and mouth being in the country 'for months'. The satirical magazine Private Eye put the date more precisely - 4 December.

Then a French stock dealer operating out of the UK, Mr Hugues Inizan, claimed he had sent sheep to France on 31 January, which were tested some weeks later in France and claimed to be infected with foot and mouth disease. Although the sheep had been slaughtered, French sources dismissed the results as 'false positives'. Despite lofty denials from government, the 'no smoke without fire' brigade were reinforced in their belief of an earlier outbreak by the sheer scale of the epidemic which even the government's chief scientist was claiming to be 'out of control'.

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Nick Brown reacted by extending the killing zones to 2 miles around each farm, while Tony Blair called in the Military Police to help coordinate the slaughter. These were quickly reinforced by more troops and a fleet of bulldozers to dig massive pits in a disused airfield in Great Orton, Cumbria, capable of burying 500,000 carcases.

Funeral pyres had become politically unacceptable and the Environment Agency had thrown the EU rules out of the window. Serious alarm was building up in the farming community. The disease had broken out into the Cumbria Fells, and the National Park was facing an 'absolute Doomsday scenario', with the threatened extinction of the unique breed of Herwick sheep. The body count now exceeded the record set in 1967 and millions more animals were at risk, with estimates of 30 million having to be killed.

Farmers and others were seriously questioning the validity of the 'contain and destroy' policy, and the prospect of mass vaccination was being seriously discussed. In fact, it was being more than discussed. The Soil Association's Patrick Holden was calling for it and millionaire publisher and pioneering organic farmer, Peter Kindersley, was planning to take the government to court to challenge its killing frenzy and force through a vaccination policy.

The MAFF spin machine had already been working overtime, blaming the spread of foot and mouth on illegal sheep movements, and identified the source as a 'dirty' pig farmer who had failed to boil swill from a Chinese restaurant - which had imported meat illegally from the Far East.

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Nick Brown went to the Commons to announce that pigswill would be banned and sheep movements would be controlled while MAFF went into 'antivaccine' mode, dredging up every reason it could find as to why vaccination would not work. Here, the MAFF showed its true colours, naked in tooth and claw. Animals which had the vaccine were 'infective'; the vaccine took too long to work and did not work very well anyway; and the 'killer' fact - EU rules required all vaccinated animals to be slaughtered. On 27 March, with over 100,000 rotting carcasses still lying in the fields and 634 outbreaks declared, Ben Gill, the president of the NFU, went on television denouncing vaccination saying that 'his members' wanted the killing speeded up. Vaccinated animals were the 'walking dead'.

But the tide was already turning. Blair was already seriously considering the vaccination option, two Conservative MPs were openly advocating it and Paul Tyler for the Liberal Democrats was calling for a change in policy.

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Fred Brown, a British scientist now working for the US Plum Island Animal Disease Centre, was scathing. A worldrenowned scientist and a leading expert on foot and mouth, his view was that it was 'crazy' not to vaccinate.

He suggested that Scudamore should look for another job - like gardening.

His wrath was also directed at the MAFF for turning down a new American diagnostic field test which could detect foot and mouth in 40 minutes, cutting days from the process of disposing of infected animals.

There it stood in the dying days of March, with Fell farmers planning a meeting in Cumbria, mad enough to gather their pitchforks and march on London in a modernday version of the peasants' revolt and the whole country in crisis. So where did it all go wrong? Essentially, at the heart of the machine was a fatal policy flaw.

The killing of agriculture

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One thing is sure: few of the farmers who have seen their animals go up in smoke will have either the energy or the funds to start all over again.

Compensation, might just about pay off that loan; whilst machinery and land will be sold off to ever larger industrial farms which if any, are the most likely to survive. Developers, of course, are a further option.

Tony Blair was partially right in pointing to supermarkets putting too much pressure on reducing costs thereby handing contracts to the few large abattoirs able to compete. However, Blair more than supported the expansion of these very supermarkets and so encouraged their very operation strategies.

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If Blair is able to make the connection between supermarkets, abattoirs and the spreading of disease, he should equally be able to comprehend the true implications and reasons that over the last two decades the number of licensed red meat abattoirs in Britain has fallen by more than 70 per cent - to about 340. The closure of so many slaughterhouses has not led to fewer animals being killed; on the contrary. As a consequence animals have to travel further and wait in long queues before facing their fate.

Yes, foot and mouth is highly contagious and travels, too. By the same reasoning, Mr Blair should also conclude that a system forcing a farmer from, let 's say, the Isle of Wight, to sell his cow, sheep or pig to a large contractor somewhere up in Scotland or Ireland must be seriously wrong (see FT 25/2/01)

Britain may have exported infected sheep - BSE and the foot and mouth disease do have something in common; a market forcing farmers to feed their animals with the cheapest and most unethical of feed and a market forcing farmers to transport their animals crammed in lorries and for long distances is, in the Burkean sense, 'inorganic 'and bound to bite back.

To Blair all of this doesn't matter; not for the moment, at least. Whilst #250m is a modest estimate of the cost of the foot and mouth disease 'to the farming sector per month, #15m is what Labour raised for a May election that never happened; and that's as far as this mental horizon seems to reach.

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Britain, historically, had opted for disease-free status, an entirely realistic objective given its island status and its ability to maintain strong border controls. But, in 1993, with the advent of the EU's 'single market' - which politicians of all three major parties heartily endorsed - the UK dismantled its border controls and opened up its markets to virtually unrestricted imports, legal and illegal.

At a stroke, trade policy was 'out of synch' with the disease control needs. The only logical move then was to embark on routine vaccination, to protect against one of the most infectious diseases in the world. Amazingly, however, in 1990 MAFF had convinced the EU to adopt disease free status, forcing continental member states to abandon vaccination.

The scene was thus set for a disaster of epic proportions. But what really set the seal on the disaster-to-come was a paradigm shift in the way livestock was reared and marketed.

Local markets and local abattoirs - driven by regulatory pressure - had given way to mass movement of animals, partly to serve a growing export market, partly to satisfy the needs of centralised supermarket buying and partly because of the critically reduced profit margins for sheep farmers.

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Hill farmers, unable to live off the income from traditional farming, increased stocking levels and became 'nurseries', keeping breeding ewes and shipping their progeny off the hills to be fattened on lowland grazing.

This accounted for the massive movements of sheep which, ultimately, were to spread the disease.

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But the fatal flaw was the inability of the Ministry to factor in changed farming practices into its control plan. In fact, it could not change its plan as it was set in stone, dictated by EU directives.

And that plan - based largely on the template developed during the 1967 outbreak - was based on one dealing with what might be called a 'phase one' outbreak. Four principles are involved: early detection of the disease; identification of the affected animals; isolation; and slaughter.

There was no 'Plan B'.

With massive secondary infection having already occurred before the outbreak was detected by MAFF, 'phase one' was wholly inappropriate, right from the very start.

At the time of writing, the government response had been to widen the control areas and slaughter more and more animals. What started as a control policy had developed into a manic killing frenzy, destroying the very fabric of British farming.

While a rapid vaccination programme could have brought this epidemic to a skidding halt in 30 days, it is not clear at present whether the Ministry of Agriculture will be able to see sense. If not, the cure will have been worse than the disease. Then a new slaughter policy will be needed - with the Ministry of Agriculture the sole target.

Dr Richard North is an adviser on food and safety, and former environmental health officer.

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