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Wednesday, 16 January, 2002, 15:02 GMT
Foot-and-mouth: Kevin Pearce from the NFU
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The rural affairs minister Lord Whitty has announced that Northumberland is the last county in the UK to be declared free of foot-and-mouth disease.

Northumberland has been one of the areas worst affected by foot-and-mouth, with a total of 234,117 animals culled in the county since the outbreak began last year.

It also had one of the first confirmed cases at Heddon-on-the-Wall in February.

Are you happy with the way the government has handled the foot-and-mouth crisis? Do you think that better preventive measures could have taken place?

Kevin Pearce, chief livestock adviser for the National Farmers' Union answered your questions in a live forum.


The topics discussed in this forum were:

  • Vaccination
  • Was the culling necessary?
  • Culling of hedgehogs and deer
  • Learning from the crisis
  • Contaminated sites
  • Communication between the agencies

    Vaccination


    Newshost:

    Marian Hussenbux, Wirral, UK: Why not vaccinate against foot-and-mouth? Is it concern for consumers here, unhappy perhaps at eating vaccinated meat? In supermarkets they willingly buy canned meat from Argentina, which I think is from vaccinated stock. Or is Argentina naturally free of foot-and mouth-disease?


    Kevin Pearce:

    From our point of view, vaccination has been a very difficult issue throughout the whole of this crisis. As laymen - and I'm not a vet and I'm not a scientist - we have never been satisfied that vaccination was the right course of action for this outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease because of the nature of it and the way it spread very quickly across the country. It's never been recommended to the National Farmers' Union that vaccination would solve the epidemic completely.

    There were suggestions early on to use vaccination as a means of limiting the spread of disease and to perhaps allow Government to catch up with all the horrendous delays we had in the early days of disposing of animals - the burials on farms and those sorts of problems - the backlog was so great. So it was suggested at that time as a potential way of controlling in a specific area. It was only ever suggested for two parts of the country - for Cumbria and Devon. It was never offered to us as a means of stopping the epidemic.


    Newshost:

    Why do you think this option has never been offered to you? Is it, as the question implies, to do with possible concerns amongst consumers?


    Kevin Pearce:

    I don't think it is. I think it's more to do with whether or not the vaccines are effective enough to actually stop the spread of a disease that is moving as quickly as this disease was moving. There is no question here about a risk to consumers. Foot-and-mouth is not a disease that has an impact on the meat. There's nothing wrong with the meat and in fact the only reason why, for example, meat exports are banned is because of the actual movement of the meat - and particularly meat on the bone where there is a problem. It is quite true that you have countries in the world that continuously vaccinate and are allowed to export but they can't export on the bone.


    Newshost:

    Matt Dower, UK: I can't believe the resistance to immunisation. The policy as carried out flies in the face of economics, animal welfare, medical scientific advice and commonsense. Isn't it a huge price to pay for inept decision-making at senior levels?


    Kevin Pearce:

    I think we come back to the same problem and that is - would vaccination have stopped this epidemic - and clearly the advice we got from government scientists and from the vets, was that it wouldn't at the time. This is not a question of economics because, as far as we're concerned, we wanted to get rid of the disease - we wanted to stop it as soon as we could. So clearly if it had been suggested that this was a method then I think everybody would have gone for it. Even recently in Europe at a conference it was recognised that it's very difficult to vaccinate a whole country. In particular we are not absolutely certain that the vaccines that are available would actually cover all of the types of cases we're dealing with - of particular worry is the way it's spread in the sheep flock.


    Newshost:

    So the best scientific advice then, as far as you can tell, is that trying to cover a whole country, in the case we had here with the spread of foot-and-mouth, that really just wasn't practical and a realistic proposition?


    Kevin Pearce:

    It was never offered to us.


    Newshost:

    But if it was offered would you have taken it?


    Kevin Pearce:

    We as an organisation and as the leading lobby body for farmers, are not opposed to vaccination. Farmers vaccinate for various things as and when they have to. There's no idealistic opposition to vaccination. We were advised that it was not the solution for dealing with the crisis in the way that it developed and the speed with which it spread. It was never actually offered to us. If was offered to us for two specific reasons - to try and limit the spread very quickly so they could catch up with the burial and on-farm disposal. When it was offered to us it was offered on the basis that you would vaccinate and then you would slaughter those animals afterwards. They were never going to allow us to vaccinate and allow those animals to live. So all you were doing was delaying the slaughter to allow them to catch up.


    Newshost:

    But with an isolated outbreak, do you think that farmers would like to have the option of vaccination to prevent it spreading?


    Kevin Pearce:

    Absolutely and there are cases in the world where you have isolated outbreaks where vaccination is used. Certainly, we would say that we never want to see this again. But clearly one of the options always has to be vaccination and also there's a lot more work that needs to be done on vaccinations to make sure that we have that at our disposal a vaccination that is scientifically acceptable to deal with the sort of outbreak that we had this time.

    Return to the top of the page


    Was the culling necessary?


    Newshost:

    S. Hill-Brookes, UK: I have seen countries that live with the disease and also vaccinate. It is not life-threatening and although I know all the reasons for culling - I think that ethically and morally - we should not consider ourselves right in taking away the lives of millions of young and healthy animals. Did the authorities over-react? Was the culling really necessary?


    Kevin Pearce:

    There is unease amongst everyone. The farmers I was to talking to throughout the crisis were devastated by this. We heard stories the disease would go through the animals and then they'd get well again - that isn't the case. I know of farmers that I talked to that saw animals at 11 o'clock in the morning and they were perfectly ok. By early afternoon, they had big abscesses on their tongues and they were in a terribly distressed state. It hits them very quickly, particularly with cattle and pigs - it's much slower in sheep in the way it presents itself. So I don't believe, unless you had some vaccine that did work, to deal with it other than through the way we had to deal with it this time - as horrendous as it was.


    Newshost:

    So you think that culling in the end was the price that had to be paid for getting on top of the disease?


    Kevin Pearce:

    It was the price that had to be paid to stop the disease spreading even further than it did. We have a very big number of animals in this country that are grazing across the country. We slaughtered over 4 million but there were still 60 odd million - including pigs, sheep and cattle still left there. It's 4 million too many but we had to try and cope with it and I don't believe there was an alternative presented to farmers that gave us any alternative.

    Return to the top of the page


    Culling of hedgehogs and deer


    Newshost:

    Nigel, Wales: There is a view that DEFRA have been asked to close the book on foot-and-mouth. I saw a suggestion that implicated hedgehogs and deer and suggested it was unlikely that either of these would culled. Can this mean that anywhere where either hedgehogs or deer live in the UK can be free of foot-and-mouth?


    Kevin Pearce:

    We had throughout this last 11 months so many rumours and suggestions as to what the cause of it was and what the problems were. All the evidence we have says that there is not a problem with either hedgehogs or deer. This disease came into the country - it was a pan-Asian variety - it was illegally imported into the country and it didn't come from anywhere else.

    Return to the top of the page


    Learning from the crisis


    Newshost:

    Are you satisfied from the union's point of view that enough has been done now to try and prevent those circumstances being repeated at some point in the future?


    Kevin Pearce:

    Absolutely not - nothing has been done. So far the biggest lesson to be learnt from this crisis has not been taken on board. That is that we have to take much more seriously the protection of our livestock industry by taking seriously the issue of imported meat and meat products. If you go to Canada, America, Australia or New Zealand, you will see how quickly they use sniffer dogs to check people aren't carrying meat or meat products into the country - and this was before the crisis in the UK. We don't take it seriously.

    I recently had a farmer who was asked to go to Australia to tell of his experience. He was culled out in the UK and saw the horrendous problems here. When he flew into Australia he was met by sniffer dogs - not because he was a farmer but because he was just entering the country. When he came back to the UK - not a leaflet, not a poster, not an announcement - no message at all to travellers of the risk that they pose. It can be as simple as carrying a sandwich - the most basic thing, with a bit of meat in it could have triggered the foot-and-mouth outbreak. Also we know the previous disease in pigs - classical swine fever - which we'd only just got over when foot-and-mouth started in February, was probably also triggered by the importation of something as simple as that.


    Newshost:

    So clearly you would like to see tighter regulations and enforcement to prevent a repetition?


    Kevin Pearce:

    We have to take this seriously. I am not saying it's on par with some of the other important things at borders - such as arms and drugs etc. But we must take seriously the issue of imported, infected meat.

    I believe if the travelling public realised the potential risk and it was explained to them, they themselves would understand. In most of these countries they have honesty boxes where people coming into the country throw their food - chocolate bars even are excluded in most of these countries - you cannot go into Australia with a chocolate bar.

    Return to the top of the page


    Contaminated sites


    Newshost:

    David Jackson, UK: My concern is for the aftermath of this terrible disaster. The burning and burial of 235,000 carcases and countless tyres has left a residue of contaminated land all across the country. Neither DEFRA or the environment agency say they know where all these sites are and have no plans to issue them with waste management licences to control them. Who is going to stop them leaking effluent into the land and the groundwater?


    Kevin Pearce:

    It's been a concern to our members and clearly they have seen this as an issue. When we were trying to make our way through this situation, the Environment Agency had an enormous say in terms of where burial sites were. They did the investigation work beforehand, they authorised them and I'm afraid there's an element of responsibility on them to monitor them. They are the people in that are in charge of protecting the environment from these sorts of problems. I hope that they are there and they are there ready to monitor to see if there are any problems.

    Return to the top of the page


    Communication between the agencies


    Newshost:

    Animal Health Licensing Officer, UK: I worked for a Trading Standards regional department during the crisis and can only say that the handling of this was a complete shambles. Trading Standards were responsible for issuing animal movement licenses for certain breeds. The main problem was a complete lack of communication from DEFRA to Trading Standards when new guidelines were introduced. Do you agree that there were major problems of communication between the agencies, which caused unnecessary confusion?


    Kevin Pearce:

    The short answer to that is yes because we actually dealt with a lot of queries ourselves as a lobby body from Trading Standards officers and others. I must say that Trading Standards officers up and down the country have done a superb job in the way that they've handled what was a crisis that put an enormous pressure on them. Farmers have been very grateful for the way that they've dealt with it. In fact most of the farmers prefer the Trading Standard officers having dealt with these sort of issues than perhaps the DEFRA officials that were dealing with them because it moved much more quickly once they were briefed and once communication was made with them so they knew what exactly they had to do.

    Return to the top of the page


  • See also:

    14 Jan 02 | UK Politics
    UK is 'foot-and-mouth free'
    14 Jan 02 | UK Politics
    New slaughter plans under fire
    22 Mar 02 | England
    Farm virus 'lost before outbreak'
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