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Wednesday, 28 February, 2001, 18:09 GMT
Foot-and-mouth: The experts quizzed

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As the disease spreads across the country, farmers are now coming to terms with yet another crisis to hit the industry.

Many have just come through the BSE disaster and the impact of the foot-and-mouth disease will cause hundreds to go out of business. But the effect is being felt far beyond the UK's farming industry.

News Online collaborated with Farming Today, BBC Radio 4's daily farming programme, to bring together three top experts in the field of foot-and-mouth who answered your questions in a live Forum.

The guests included, former president of the British Veterinary Association, GP Francis Anthony. Journalist and environmental campaigner, George Monbiot, and Anthony Gibson from the National Farmer's Union.


Transcript:


News Host:

Today we are talking about foot-and-mouth disease. With me are three people who are more than qualified to answer your queries. They are Francis Anthony, a practising vet and former president of the British Veterinary Association. He well remembers the last time foot-and-mouth devastated the UK farming industry. We are also joined by Anthony Gibson, from the National Farmers' Union of the South West of England, which has borne much of the brunt of the outbreak so far. Also with us George Monbiot, journalist and commentator, who has just published a book called Captive State: The Corporate Take over of Britain.


News Host:

Sarah from Croydon asks why has it come now when the country has been free of it for twenty years? WJ from the Czech Republic asks: if the UK is an island, how did it get in?


Anthony Gibson:

Well a very good question and a great many theories will be put forward as to the answer. The premises where the disease originated in Northumberland is a swill feeder. They take swill from schools - from the Sunderland Education Authority - boil it up and feed it to their pigs and presumably somewhere amongst the swill was some infected pork probably from South East Asia or South Africa and that swill on one particular day wasn't boiled properly. It was then fed to pigs - and meat that is infected with foot-and-mouth disease remains infected if it isn't heat treated - and the pigs there caught foot-and-mouth. The owners didn't spot it and the rest is history.


News Host:

Frances Anthony, as a vet, is that a usual way of foot-and-mouth spreading around?


Francis Anthony:

It is indeed. Pigs happen to be wonderful sentinels for the infection and secondly they are wonderful virus factories. This could have come in on a sandwich - it could have come in on any piece of meat from an infected area. The failure was in the cooking process because it is quite safe to feed waste food for pigs provided it is cooked under pressure for over an hour at 100 degrees centigrade but we all know there can be failures of plant. The pig is a wonderful virus factory for foot-and-mouth disease; give it a few particles and whoosh - out it comes.


News Host:

So the pig is excreting the virus as well then is it?


Francis Anthony:

The pig is excreting the virus very, very quickly. The incubation period is thought to be up to 14 days but with very virulent strains like the "o" strain from Asia it could be as little as three days but on average probably seven days.


News Host:

George Monbiot does this worry you? Obviously people writing in with these e-mails are worried about how it got here.


George Monbiot:

The underlying question I suppose is why on earth are we importing pork from South Africa and South East Asia when our own pig farmers are going bust because they can't sell their pork here?

We have seen in the last forty years, a three-fold increase in the international trade in food - six hundred million metric tonnes nowadays and a great deal of this food passes identical food on the way to its destination going in the opposite direction. We are exporting our pork to one end of the world - and that end of the world is exporting all its pork over here - it is a crazy and completely unnecessary system and one of the results is the inevitable spread of diseases like this.


News Host:

Now looking at the disease itself, Jeremy Bass from Glasgow asks: Does the virus need a trigger - another illness - to create infection?


Francis Anthony:

No, this virus, particularly this "o" strain, is an extremely virulent virus. Any disease is more likely to take hold when the immune status of an animal or a person is compromised. But you need very little compromise for this very, very virulent virus to take hold.


Patricia, Texas, USA

How does this disease affect humans?


Francis Anthony:

It doesn't affect humans - that is the cold answer. The scientists I think did once recover foot-and-mouth disease virus from a blister on somebody's hands but to all intents and purposes this is a disease which affects cloven-footed animals - cows, pigs, sheep goats, antelopes and purely of scientific interest - the hedgehog.


John Harwich, London:

Might the disease have been brought in by people coming from abroad and then working on farms.


Anthony Gibson:

Well it is possible. But if you look back at the origins of foot-and-mouth outbreaks they are almost always connected - where they can find a source - with pig swill operations and behind the pig swill, meat imported from an area where the foot-and-mouth disease is endemic. It would be very surprising if the origin of this outbreak isn't very similar to that historical pattern.


George Monbiot:

One of the great ironies of the globalised economy is that it is a lot easier for trade goods - and livestock are one of those trade goods - to move across borders than it is for human beings. While humans, especially from developing countries, are very firmly excluded from coming to work, except under very special circumstances, in Britain, it is much easier for live animals to be brought all the way - in some cases the Middle East or even further away - into British markets.


News Host:

Lets move on to how to deal with the disease itself - we have had many questions about vaccines. Paul Rowe in London asks is there likely to be a vaccine?


Francis Anthony:

Yes there is a vaccine and it is quite a cheap vaccine. Most of the vaccine manufacture against foot-and-mouth disease is conducted in this country at Purbright. But at the moment that is not an issue. The policy of this country and the policy of the European Community is to stamp out this disease without vaccination. One has to realise that vaccination does not actually get rid of a disease - what it does is protect the population from the disease but in fact you still have the disease. There is a good analogy with measles in human beings - most children are vaccinated against measles but measles is still out there and we prefer to have a foot-and-mouth disease-free country.


News Host:

What is the reason for not having a vaccination programme?


Anthony Gibson:

As Francis said, it would mean accepting that foot-and-mouth disease was endemic.


News Host:

But we have got it anyway.


Anthony Gibson:

Yes, but we don't have to keep it - we can get rid of it. We got rid of it before and we can get rid of it again. On a more practical level, we would become pariahs in the international world - we would not be able to export our meat anywhere.


News Host:

But are we not seen as that at present?


Anthony Gibson:

Yes we are in the short-term. But we had a far more serious outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease than this in 1967 and we managed to clear that up. There is an absolute 100% determination on the part of everyone in the farming community and the veterinary profession that we are going to clear it up this time. We are not prepared to tolerate foot-and-mouth disease - it is a problem that is associated with, to be frank, Third World countries and in animal health terms, Britain is not a Third World country - we like to think of ourselves as world leaders.


Francis Anthony:

There is provision in the European Commission to give permission for a vaccine to be used in the short-term - either nationally or on an area basis - to contain an outbreak which is has really got out of hand. We are at the very early stages of this outbreak. The disease is not spreading as people are suggesting at the moment - it has spread and all the new cases can be traced back to the original source. Now if, in a fortnight we are still getting new cases, then we need to consider what else we do.


George Monbiot:

It does seem peculiar that we are not thinking of deploying it as a means of containment at the moment. I can understand the point that as a long-term remedy it might well make us international trade pariahs but it does seem to me that there is a very compelling argument to start using it as a short-term means of containment.


News Host:

Carley Graham, Norwich, Chris Ashford, Lancashire, Oliver Graydon, Bristol, Paul Machin, London, Stephen Giles, Mansfield, Sheena Brewer, Reading - all ask: Why is it necessary to kill so many animals - why can't we treat them?


Francis Anthony:

Well you cannot treat most viruses easily - you can't treat people with influenza or the common cold - you can just support them until they get over it. One has to remember that foot-and-mouth disease doesn't kill animals - it kills very few - perhaps only the young and the weak. If you left it to run its course the animals would recover. But unfortunately dairy cows would not produce milk, beef animals would not fatten, lambs and pigs would not fatten. So the economic effect, bearing in mind that all these animals are producing products for human consumption, would be devastating.


News Host:

So is the slaughter a purely commercial concern?


Anthony Gibson:

You could say it is commercial concern and you could also say it is animal health concern. But one really doesn't want to have foot-and-mouth disease in the animal population on a long-term basis. The reason why so many animals have to be slaughtered is because it is such an infectious condition. The animals have to be slaughtered and incinerated under very particular conditions to make sure that any risk of the virus escaping into the atmosphere and being blown onto another farm is minimised.


News Host:

But how do the economics add up though when we are paying out compensation to farmers and we are also paying for all the destruction of the animals as well?


Anthony Gibson:

With the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 1967 we paid roughly 150 million and virtually nothing since then. If we were to tolerate foot-and-mouth disease in the animal population we would be accepting a 25% reduction in the productivity in cattle, sheep and pigs every year. I don't know what that is in terms of billions of pounds but I would guess about 2 or 3 billion a year - year after year. Yes, the policy we have does involve us in significant expenditure from time to time but it avoids vastly greater expenditure on what would otherwise be a regular basis.


News Host:

But don't we have over-production of meat anyway?


Anthony Gibson:

Yes, but you cannot say we are going to make our industry deliberately uncompetitive by having animals that are prone to a debilitating disease and spend their lives in misery and suffering, simply because we are not prepared to eradicate foot-and-mouth disease and do everything that is necessary to eradicate foot-and-mouth disease on the very rare and infrequent occasions that it does rear its ugly head.


Francis Anthony:

Let us not forget that with all the welfare of animals debate that is going on, the major cause of concern with animal welfare is disease. Disease - particularly foot-and-mouth is a major welfare problem.


George Monbiot:

The cost of eradication and of compensation is just one of the many inordinate costs of this crazy long-distance transport system. It simply doesn't make sense to be trucking one lot of animals from Lands End to John O'Groats and another lot of animals from John O'Groats to Lands End and slaughtering them at opposite ends of the country and then trucking the meat all the way back. That is the underlying reason why this disease has spread so far and so fast. This is just one of the costs that we are having to pay for this mad food economy which we have fallen into - largely because of the grip of a few big companies, particularly the superstores, on the entire food chain.


News Host:

Anthony Gibson do you take that criticism?


Anthony Gibson:

Well there is probably something in it but I have to say that the trade from the North of England to the South in breeding stock - ewes, pedigree bulls and so on is very long established.


George Monbiot:

Yes but nothing like on the scale we are seeing now.


Anthony Gibson:

Animal transport is very strictly regulated in Europe by the European Animal Transport regulations and people wouldn't do it if it didn't pay and the reason it pays is because there is a demand for it and that is what the market dictates.


George Monbiot:

Consumers aren't saying, we want our animals to be trucked right across Britain - it is the superstores who are saying we want the animals trucked across Britain. One of the reasons for that is that they can get more money if they sell their cattle as Scotch beef or if they sell their lambs as Welsh lamb than they can if they sell it as English. So what they are doing is sending these animals to Scotland for two weeks to be pastured there or sending them to Wales to be pastured there for two weeks and then they mark the prices up by calling them Scotch beef or Welsh lamb. Now that has got absolutely nothing to do with what consumers want - it is what the superstores want.


Jacob Simon, Pennsylvania, USA:

If foot-and-mouth doesn't affect humans then could the affected herds be slaughtered for food?


Anthony Gibson:

Yes they could. You could eat it but if any of that meat then found its way into pig swill and wasn't properly treated we would be back to square one and you would just be spreading the infection around.

Going back to the previous point - consumers may say they want high welfare practices and special organic premium food but when it comes down to their buying habits what they are most interested in is cheap food and that is what is driving the whole market.


News Host:

There have been a lot of questions about the spread of the disease - Barry Simmonds, Gloucester asks: If the disease is airborne, should low flying aircraft, including helicopters, be banned? The disease can be airborne can't it?


Francis Anthony:

Yes, the disease can be airborne but we mustn't fall into the trap of looking at the odd ways that this disease is spread. Yes, it can be airborne and certainly in 1967/68 the weather was particularly freakish in November - the disease spread in the fog from Shropshire up to Cheshire. I think we really need to concentrate on the common causes of the spread of this and that is the movement of animals between farms and markets, the movement of people between farms and movement of vehicles between farms. Yes, you can carry it on your clothes. Yes, your dog can carry it - but these are not the common routes of infection.


News Host:

Katherine Pursey who is a farmer's daughter from Devon - she goes to college in Taunton. She asks: "Should I still be going to college?" She also adds that the longer animals are kept out in the open isn't there more risk of the disease spreading because they are in the open air?


Francis Anthony:

It very much depends on the concentration - two or three animals in a field - if they develop foot-and-mouth and it is a very windy day - the amount of virus excreted is quite high but of course that is dissipated. One hundred cows outside - which you wouldn't get at this time of year - yes, there is a very good chance that that disease would be spread.

In terms of going to and from college, many colleges have closed as an extreme precaution but if you leave your house in your college clothes and everybody at college is in college clothes the chances of exchanging foot-and-mouth disease virus unless you have been amongst the disease on your farm - it is remote.


News Host:

Anthony Gibson you are down in the South West where there have been several outbreaks - what are you advising people to do there?


Anthony Gibson:

If you live in one of the infected areas then it is probably just as well not to go into college or certainly not to go to places where other farmers might be who might pick the infection up and take it back to their farms. There is a heightened awareness and you can't too careful where foot-and-mouth disease is concerned. So far all of the outbreaks are connected with the original consignment of sheep that came down from Northumberland and it doesn't seem yet to have spread outwards from those original contacts.

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