Honest Food

the Campaign for Independent Food

 

PO Box 16141 London SE1 4ZH

Telephone: 020 8740 7194

E-mail: honest-food@countryside-alliance.org

 

 

 

Inquiry into the lessons to be learned from the foot and mouth disease outbreak of 2001

 

Submission by Honest Food

 

 

 

Honest Food is a campaigning organization whose aim is to promote diversity in food production, consumer choice and rural livelihoods. All three of these were seriously affected by the foot and mouth epidemic of 2001 and by what was perceived by many livestock farmers, food producers and others who live in the countryside or observe closely developments in it, as inept handling of the crisis. A number of reports, based on evidence collected in particularly badly affected areas, have already been published. They all draw the same conclusions: there was little preparation for the epidemic, a great deal of panic and a tendency to centralize all tests and decisions. Honest Food, together with numerous other organizations, feels strongly that such a situation must not arise again.

 

(      A serious part of the problem that surrounded the handling of foot and mouth disease in 2001, it seems to us, was the lack of communication between the Government and MAFF/DEFRA on the one hand and the farmers who had been affected in various ways on the other. There are numerous stories of individual cases when farms were slaughtered out wrongly, animals who had been kept as pets away from any possible contagion were killed while their owners' attention was distracted, A and D notices served to the wrong places or not served when they should have been and so on. Over and above individual cases, it can be said without any doubt that the farming community and with them others who live in the countryside have emerged from the epidemic with a feeling of complete distrust. The idea that the handling of the crisis was done despite and against them is widespread. The feeling of distrust for the Government and DEFRA has persisted and spread beyond the parts of the countryside actually affected by the disease. It seems to us in Honest Food that as a matter of first urgency the trust has to be rebuilt. A country cannot have a large chunk of its population feeling that they are not being told the truth and that their welfare and livelihood are being ignored and discounted. That being so, we were disturbed to see the following:

 

1.      Widespread references to "foot and mouth disease outbreak" both in this inquiry's terms of reference and in general references by the Government and DEFRA. It is surely right to acknowledge that what the country lived through in 2001 was an epidemic. This is not merely playing around with words - if the people who lived through an epidemic feel that the severity of their experience is not being acknowledged, the necessary reconstruction of trust cannot happen.

 

2.      In the same way, Honest Food feels it is wrong to refer as a cull to what amounted to a mass slaughter of animals (11 million or thereabouts according to the Meat and Livestock Commission). Again, we feel it is very important that one lesson should be learned: it is necessary to voice the unpalatable truth in order to be seen to be tackling the problems.

 

(      Honest Food feels that part of the mishandling of the crisis stemmed from the Government's, the Ministry's and the veterinary profession's unpreparedness for the disease and its spread. It is clear that the recommendations of the Northumberland Report into the epidemic of 1967 had not been put into place. If, as seems likely, the Government could not have put them into place because of subsequent EU legislation, this should have been made clear, by preference before the epidemic had started, but, certainly during it. However, it is also clear, not least from subsequent ministerial replies in the Houses of Parliament, that the EU's FMD Contingency Plan, first accepted in 1993 as a strategic plan for all the Member States and updated specifically and in great detail for Great Britain in July 2000, was not put into place either. Post-FMD behaviour on the part of the Government and DEFRA does not fill one with confidence that serious thought is being given to what may be the best contingency plan to be put into practice. The promulgation of an ill-conceived Animal Health Bill, published with no consultation and pushed through the House of Commons with little discussion (it is at present going through the House of Lords) makes us feel that the Government does not show itself to be interested in a serious investigation of what had gone wrong. A similar reluctance to look at the consequences of past policies - "contiguous cull", which has brought about the killing of far more animals than was necessary and created a terrifying image of Britain in the world; a reluctance to consider other scientific methods such as vaccination - shows itself in the hastily prepared Interim Contingency Plan by DEFRA.

 

(      Honest Food did welcome this inquiry as well as the others, but feels, nevertheless, that a complete public inquiry with published evidence would have been the correct way to proceed. Once again, we feel that the Government is not prepared to accept the seriousness of the crisis in the countryside.

 

(      Honest Food warned in its report on the meat industry published in 2000 that the destruction of small and medium-sized slaughterhouses would have serious consequences to the countryside. (A Threat to the Countryside - the Misregulation of the Meat Industry and its Consequences). We urge the Government to look seriously at the role of the smaller slaughterhouses and to consider ways in which their existence can be ensured in future, perhaps more be reopened and their proper role be acknowledged.

 

(      Serious questions were asked and doubts expressed about the preparedness of the veterinary science in this country for the epidemic. As far as we can see, this raises a very important wider question and that is the control of scientific enquiry. Honest Food feels strongly that thought should be given to the possibility of scientific research conducted in institutions and laboratories outside the Government's and DEFRA's control. The many complaints about testing for FMD and the recent scandal about bovine brains being tested for BSE instead of ovine ones would indicate that the present situation is unsatisfactory. There are several possibilities. The Inquiry should recommend the possibility of using privately financed laboratories that are properly equipped and run in addition to Government and university ones that are financed by the Government. The Inquiry might also like to look at the situation in the Netherlands, where sectoral farmers' organizations (produktshaps) fund and promote research and co-ordinate disease control measures. We are, of course, aware that the structure of farmers' organizations is different in England and, therefore, a direct copy would not be possible or desirable. But the notion of farming funding its own scientific research and disease control measures, perhaps in conjunction with local authorities, should be examined seriously. At present there is a lack of trust between farmers and scientists that work for the Ministry on the one hand, and between consumers and both farmers and scientists on the other. Opening up scientific research, without losing any of the rigour, would go some way towards solving the double problem. Honest Food would be happy to discuss possible ways of financing such scientific research, should the Inquiry wish to go into greater detail in its recommendations.

 

(      We would recommend further that one important lesson to be learned is a more open attitude towards scientific research in other countries, particularly the United States America. Honest Food was shocked to learn that up-to-date scientific data and methods were offered to the British Government free of charge by the United States Agriculture Department and that these were not accepted. National pride has no place in scientific and veterinary work, particularly in the middle of a crisis.

 

We hope these suggestions will be helpful.

 

Yours sincerely,

 

 

 

 

 

Helen Szamuely (Dr)

Director Honest Food