COMMENT 26th January 2002

FMD and animal welfare
Veterinary Record

'FROM the moment foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) was confirmed in February, it was obvious that the impact would be devastating and that the welfare implications were far wider than mere consideration of those animals which were unlucky enough to become infected.' So says Dr Judy MacArthur Clark, chairwoman of the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC), in her introduction to the FAWC's report on the animal welfare issues arising during last year's epidemic*. The report, published earlier this month, has been submitted to both the Government's 'lessons learned' inquiry into FMD and the Royal Society's inquiry into the infectious diseases of livestock. It draws together key aspects of the FAWC's concerns regarding the 2001 epidemic, covering issues such as the ethics of the mass slaughter of animals, slaughter options and techniques, and the animal welfare implications of movement restrictions imposed to control the disease. In all, it makes 28 recommendations, which the inquiries - and the Government - would do well to take on board.

The FAWC does not consider the killing of animals per se to be a welfare problem, provided it is carried out humanely. However, it says, ethical questions do arise from the scale of mass slaughter carried out during the 2001 epidemic. It accepts that on Infected Premises the most effective way of preventing further spread of disease was to slaughter herds or flocks quickly and that, in the absence of other effective measures, killing animals on dangerous contact premises was necessary to reduce the risk of disease spread. Nevertheless, it says, further debate is needed on the extent of the slaughter policy adopted and it believes there are cogent reasons, related to both ethics and welfare, why the scale of slaughter should be kept to the minimum compatible with effective disease control. 'In considering this relationship between ethics and welfare, it is essential to separate the implications of the disease itself from those arising out of the conditions imposed to control the disease,' it says. 'Thus, in addition to concerns about possibly excessive biosecurity measures, we have concerns that uninfected animals may have suffered or been killed unnecessarily for want of feed or land availability.'

The FAWC believes the outbreak was of such magnitude that MAFF, now DEFRA, was not fully prepared for it in practical terms and that 'it was this lack of preparedness and the insufficiency of resources and measures to conduct a widespread slaughter policy efficiently that led to the negative effects on animal welfare in many instances'. It argues that contingency plans for disease outbreaks must be rehearsed and reviewed annually, in liaison with all relevant groups, taking account of all manner and scale of scenarios. It believes that the size and centralisation of the State Veterinary Service (SVS) were limiting factors in dealing with the outbreak. It calls for the establishment of a trained 'State Veterinary Reserve', to allow assistance for the SVS to be mobilised quickly. It also suggests that communication between SVS headquarters, divisional offices, local veterinary inspectors and reserves should be improved.

Last year's outbreak highlighted problems with mass killing in the field, the FAWC says: 'This was an area where animals were often subjected to severe welfare challenge, as dramatic images in the media often made clear.' It notes that the handling and restraint facilities required for slaughter in the field are very different from those in established slaughter facilities and suggests that appropriate solutions should be available as part of the contingency plan, not learned as an outbreak progresses. It points out that efficient field killing teams need to be available from day 1 of an outbreak and recommends, among other things, that an audit of slaughtermen and the killing equipment immediately available to deal with a disease outbreak should form part of the annual review of contingency plans, together with an audit of the ability of manufacturers to increase production of the equipment that is needed. It says that research is necessary to assess the effectiveness of captive bolt stunners as a method of killing sheep, and that the Government should consider establishing a scheme of recognised standards for the equipment that is used. It also recommends that detailed strategies should be developed for the field slaughter of all species and ages of animals in the field; these should be available as part of contingency plans and based on sound scientific research.

The FAWC believes that there should be a trained reserve of field slaughtermen for rapid deployment in disease emergencies. It suggests that there should be a specific licence for killing animals in the field, together with incentives for slaughtermen to be trained to take up this option. Slaughter teams should not be paid piece rates, it says, as this type of incentive 'is not consistent with welfare-friendly handling and accuracy'. A chain of command needs to be established from veterinarians to charge hands to slaughtermen and stockmen. In addition, it says, the organisational principles of large-scale killing under field conditions need to be defined and set out clearly to provide operational guidelines for those having to set up and implement procedures on farms with widely different facilities. The Army should have been involved from the outset to deal with the logistics of controlling the outbreak, the FAWC says, adding, 'The quicker the cull is organised and carried out, the better for the animals involved.'

The extent of sheep movements in Great Britain in the early part of 2001 was, the FAWC points out, 'a major driver' for the spread of FMD, and it calls for better use of predictive models for movement analysis and disease control planning. It recommends that the effectiveness and enforcement of livestock movement recording should be reviewed, and calls for an effective identification system for sheep to be established, to allow for traceability. Here, it suggests, the move towards a viable and practical method of electronic identification of individual animals 'would seem the only way forward'. The FAWC questions the eligibility criteria under the Sheep Annual Premium Scheme which, it suggests, contributed to the extent of sheep movements early last year and could also have welfare implications by encouraging producers to acquire stock that they may find difficult to feed. It suggests that any system of payment based on predicted head count is 'fundamentally flawed', and that the current system should be reviewed and revised at EU level.

Discussing the effects of movement restrictions, the FAWC points out that the 'simplistic' view of farms as ring-fenced units 'with all their animals self-contained' is no longer true, and draws attention to welfare problems that can arise as a result of animals being confined to holdings. It suggests that such problems should be assessed on a case by case basis, with decisions being made locally, and that timely management and veterinary advice should be made available to farmers. With regard to the Livestock Welfare Disposal Scheme, it suggests that the scheme was initially over-generous, and that this may have encouraged over-subscription which may have affected the prioritisation of cases where the welfare problems were most acute. It believes that more could have been done on-farm in terms of providing fodder or fresh land before invoking the disposal scheme and recommends that, in future, welfare schemes should address all avenues available to producers to sustain the welfare of their animals, not just disposal. In particular, it recommends that the Government should consider a system of 'welfare vouchers', to help with the provision of fodder and other resources.

On the issue of vaccination, the FAWC notes that it was questionable whether this would have been a suitable option for disease control during last year's outbreak but says that, in principle, a policy of vaccination in the face of an outbreak could have significant welfare benefits and should not be ruled out. 'A policy of vaccination that was effective in preventing or slowing down the spread of disease and led to fewer animals being culled would be a significant welfare benefit,' it says. However, it also points out that meat and other products from vaccinated animals would need to be equally acceptable to the consumers as products from non-vaccinated animals to guarantee the continued value of such animals, and thus their welfare up to the point of slaughter. It calls for greater reassurance of the public that meat from vaccinated animals can safely enter the food chain, at a time when there is no threat of disease and public trust is more likely. It also draws attention to problems that may arise as a result of animals being ring-fenced following vaccination, and points out that, if this policy is applied, there must be adequate regional capacity to provide for animals in the areas affected, and to cope with the numbers of livestock requiring slaughter or disposal.

In an outbreak of FMD, the FAWC says, vaccination should be considered among the other methods of controlling the disease, and measures decided upon according to the circumstances.

Discussing biosecurity, the FAWC points out that the greatest welfare issues arise from the presence of disease itself and recommends that the Government should review the effectiveness of import controls to minimise the risk of disease being introduced into Great Britain. Meanwhile, it says, the importance of farmers taking reasonable animal health and welfare precautions when restocking their farms cannot be overstated. In this context, it recommends that veterinary advice should be available to farmers planning to restock their herds as part of the five free days of business consultancy available under the Rural Development Programme. More generally, it remarks that the assumption that most farmers have access to information via the Internet is 'inappropriate', and it recommends that the Government should review the provision of the information to all parties during the FMD outbreak, to ensure that the best possible advice and guidance can be provided in any future emergency.
Dr MacArthur Clark starts her introduction to the report with the comment that, 'The year 2001 will surely go down in history as a turning point for British agriculture.'
In that she is undoubtedly correct. However, with so many inquiries assessing the lessons of last year's outbreak, it is by no means clear at this stage precisely what form livestock farming will take in the future.

* Foot and mouth disease 2001 and animal welfare: lessons for the future. Farm Animal Welfare Council, January 2002. Available free of charge from DEFRA Publications, Admail 6000, London SW1A 2XX, telephone 08459 556000