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Tuesday, 23 July, 2002, 07:48 GMT 08:48 UK
Foot-and-mouth report: Ask an expert
The UK government has come under heavy criticism for its handling of the foot-and-mouth crisis in a report published on Monday.

The Lessons to be Learned inquiry has highlighted ministers' failure to prepare properly for the scale of the outbreak and to halt the spread of the disease quickly enough.

The investigation which was chaired by Dr Iain Anderson CBE, has recommended that the army should have been brought in sooner to deal with the outbreak.

What are the lessons that have been learned from the foot-and-mouth crisis? Could the government have done more to deal with the situation?

Gareth Edwards-Jones, Professor of Agriculture and Land Use, answered your questions in a LIVE interactive forum.


Transcript


Newshost:

The third and final report into last year's foot-and-mouth outbreak has criticised the Government over it's handling of the crisis. It accuses the former agriculture minister, Nick Brown, of losing the trust of the public by saying the disease was under control when it wasn't. The report also says the army should have been brought in earlier to help deal with the crisis.

Joining me now to answer your questions is an expert on foot-and-mouth, Professor Gareth Edward-Jones of the University of Bangor who is in our north Wales studio.

The first question is from John Adlington, UK: How can we know what lessons have been learned unless we have a full public enquiry into what happened? (Fat chance of that happening under this government).


Professor Gareth Edward-Jones:

Yes, I'm not really an expert on public inquiries. The truth is we won't really know what's been learnt until we are challenged again by foot-and-mouth. So until it comes in again and we can control it within two weeks, we are not ever going to know what was learnt. I think there've been quite a few inquiries at different levels - I suspect we've really wrung the washing dry to some extent.


Newshost:

It's a fairly active point though a lot of people have called for one. This inquiry was carried out by Dr Iain Anderson wasn't it - the former adviser to Tony Blair. A lot of the questioning to government ministers was done behind closed doors, so it's a fair point. Aren't you concerned about it - we don't want to wait until the next outbreak of foot-and-mouth?


Professor Gareth Edward-Jones:

I suppose personally I can understand that the public feels that some things are being hidden and unless ministers are put on the stand, so to speak, they won't get the truth. But, personally, I just don't buy into the conspiracy theory and I really don't think things are being hidden. I don't think there is very much more as I said you can wring out of it. I think we were genuinely caught unawares and to some extent we were very unlucky.


Newshost:

Caroline Earle, Guildford: As I understand it, the foot and mouth virus does not kill the animal it has infected. Why, therefore, does the animal have to be slaughtered and the carcass burned - why is it not allowed to enter the human food chain?


Professor Gareth Edward-Jones:

A very straightforward question and a very common one. This time last year lots of people were saying that foot-and-mouth was just like a mild dose of flu and the animals would recover. I think what we need to remember is that lots of people in the UK have never seen foot-and-mouth - you really need to go to the Middle East and Africa to see it.

There were several reasons why we were suggesting culling this time last year. One is there are welfare implications. It actually is a fairly nasty disease that lasts three or four weeks - the animals do suffer during that time. It's not at all equivalent to mild flu. In young animals there is increased mortality. So there are some welfare implications.

There is also an effect on the production of the animal. If you take a milk cow, which is perhaps the easiest thing to imagine, after having been infected with foot-and-mouth, the milk yield will drop - perhaps between 25 - 30% for the rest of the animal's life. So as an economic piece of capital it would not be quite so useful. If we didn't kill them, then we'd have the combination of welfare, the combination of reduced production and it really would be that the farmer simply wouldn't be able to keep his profitability up and the animals would go anyway from being "poor doers", as the farmers would say.


Newshost:

Lindsay Robertson, England: Why do farmers not insure their stock? Because they don't need to - the taxpayer picks up the bill. Of those farmers who have restocked, how many have insured against stock loss?


Professor Gareth Edward-Jones:

Another good question. Actually in the UK I think we're very far behind many other countries in the rest of the world with regards insurance. Actually crop insurance is more common than animal insurance because in places like Australia, they often have drought or they have outbreaks of pests that will devastate a whole crop. So they do have insurance and there are whole systems set up. We don't really have widespread insurance here because we haven't had, until last year, any major epidemics - major catastrophes - that would make insurance worthwhile. So there hasn't really been a widespread need for insurance and therefore it hasn't been available.


Newshost:

Luke, Brighton, UK: Do you agree that farming methods are to blame and that normal people are justified in thinking that the whole crisis was due to greedy profit grabbing farmers?


Professor Gareth Edward-Jones:

No, I don't agree with that at all. The question I would put to this questioner is: Do you think that the flu strikes bad people as opposed to good people? This is a virus. It does strike susceptible animals. There is no evidence at all that that good farmers - let's say perhaps say organic in the views of the public - would be less susceptible than bad farmers. It was just, as I say, unlucky that some farmers were infected and some weren't. I don't think it's anything to do with whether the farmers were greedy or not - or anybody else was greedy. It was a straightforward biological situation, that the virus infects animals and they pass it on to their neighbours - nothing at all to do with good or bad.


Newshost:

Luke also wants to know: Can you understand the resentment that the taxpayer, yet again, has to compensate the farmers for problems caused by their greed? What other industry gets such financial backing?


Professor Gareth Edward-Jones:

I can fully understand the taxpayer being a little bit upset about this. The taxpayer believes that they are giving lots of money and subsidies to the agriculture industry. They feel that the agricultural industry is largely responsible for deterioration in the countryside and then to cap it all, last year they couldn't even go and walk in the countryside. I fully understand that the taxpayer feels aggrieved. Unfortunately, in the system we are in, that was how it panned out. I am not an expert on how government gives out their money but I think there are quite a few industries - the rail industry, the car industry, the aeronautics industry - all get quite substantial handouts. So agriculture isn't alone in receiving government handouts.


Newshost:

Iain Strachan, Leeds, UK: Whilst we watch the government under attack from a barrage of irate farmers, is the key issue of farming techniques being addressed? Is there a strong case for farmers getting their own house in order, a re-organisation of the food distribution train, and lesser dependence on national "fattening" centres for livestock?


Professor Gareth Edward-Jones:

I think there are several key issues in there. When we're talking about farming, generally we're talking about things that happen, as we say, "within the farm gate" - in other words, what happens to cows and sheep in a field and then what we're talking about is once the farmer sells them, they're being moved around into markets, moved up and down road systems before they finally end up on the butcher's shelf.

It seems that what happens in the field - there's no evidence that we need to do very much - as I say, the cattle are out there eating grass - it was unlucky that they caught the virus. In terms of moving animals around, there's been a change in the law that farmers now are not allowed to move them quickly - if they buy them today they have to hold them on their land for 20 days - so we're not going to have this quick transmission of virus as sheep move owners five times in a week. I think there's also evidence that that we're vastly improving the hygiene in our slaughter houses. So things are changing but largely outside the farm gates, not on the farm itself.


Newshost:

Catherine Raw, Ripon, Yorkshire, UK: I can't see that anything has been done to stop it happening again - do you agree? Also what about research or approval of new testing methods?


Professor Gareth Edward-Jones:

I think foot-and-mouth, will definitely come again to the UK - we will be challenged - it's what we might call a one in twenty year event. It came in the 1950s, it came in the 1960s, it came in the 1980s - although we got rid of it quite quickly - and I'm sure we will be challenged again. In terms of what we can do to stop it - there's two routes that it can come in. It can come in the air from the continent, as happened in the 1980s or it can come in, in infected meat or infected stock.

There's been an awful lot of talk recently about trying to stop the illegal import of meat into the UK and into Europe. That's a really difficult job and it's one I particularly worry about because I don't see how we are getting on top of that. It's impossible to test all the meat that comes into Britain. But also what's worrying is that we need to encourage our European partners to keep their borders as tight as we'd like to keep our own. So once meat comes into Greece, it can be passed to us by and large without being tested and I think that's something we need to work on as the European community, to really make sure that we can stop illegal meat coming in and I think it's a major challenge.


Newshost:

Alastair Muirhead, Perth: Does the legal importation of meats from countries known to have foot-and-mouth disease i.e. Argentina pose a threat to the health of our flocks? And if so should we be pressing to ban these imports?


Professor Gareth Edward-Jones:

There's lots of people in UK farming who would like to see meat which is produced, in what we might think are inferior systems to ours, being banned for a whole range of reasons, both in terms of disease and in terms of welfare. I am quite sympathetic to that point of view. We've seen the pig industry, for example, suffer quite badly because pigs from inferior welfare systems are allowed to be imported into Britain but the pig farmers in Britain can't produce them in that way. Personally I would like to see far stricter importing rules. Politically I don't think that we're actually going to move very far down that road.


Newshost:

Alex Hunter, London: Is it possible to get a complete and accurate list of the size and grid reference locations of all foot-and-mouth and BSE burial sites?


Professor Gareth Edward-Jones:

Certainly you can get a list of all the grid references of infected farms. I am not entirely sure about burial sites - I suspect if you wanted to get those you'd talk to your local environment agency who would be responsible for that.

In terms of BSE, there will be no burial sites because the carcases for BSE are incinerated.



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22 Jul 02 | UK Politics
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