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"A crisis which is beginning to spread to every corner of Britain"
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The BBC's Sarah Lockett
"It is hoped this will minimise the outbreak of infection"
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Sunday, 25 February, 2001, 15:42 GMT
The pointless slaughter?
Thousands of animals are being slaughtered
Thousands of animals are being culled
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

Up and down the UK the funeral pyres are burning, cremating the remains of pigs, cattle and sheep that could have contracted foot-and-mouth.

The government's remedy for this highly contagious disease is to slaughter every animal judged to be at risk.

In the last big outbreak in 1967, more than 400,000 animals were killed.

But there are grounds for arguing that the slaughter policy is misconceived.

How real a risk?

It is not strictly necessary, as the disease poses no real risk to human health. At most it can occasionally lead to a mild infection and it is not invariably fatal to the animals themselves.

Officials argue slaughtering works
In adult cattle only a small minority usually succumbs, though the death rate can be much higher in younger animals, and in pigs.

But there is a vaccine available, which although it has never been used in the European Union, is widely used in some other parts of the world.

Animals that have recovered from foot-and-mouth are usually weakened, producing less milk and suffering weight loss.

But whether that would leave UK farmers in a worse plight than they face already is debatable.

No guarantees

If destroying every animal at risk could guarantee that the UK would then be safe from further outbreaks, there might be more reason for the slaughter policy.

But guarantees of future immunity do not and cannot exist.

The last foot-and-mouth outbreak in the UK was in 1981, which leads the government to argue that slaughtering has worked.

But it is at least as logical to say that the UK has for 20 years been extraordinarily lucky. Our luck has now run out, and no-one knows how long it will take to eradicate this outbreak.

The uncomfortable truth, though, is that the day the UK is declared free of foot-and-mouth once again, the risk of another outbreak will remain just as high.

The reason is simple. It is absurdly easy to bring diseased meat, or contaminated food of almost any description, into the country.

The health authorities at docks and airports work valiantly to prevent unhealthy food entering the UK, but they can do little more than scratch the surface of the trade and hope for the best.

Importing infected meat

Last month the BBC Radio 4 environment programme Costing the Earth reported on the ease with which unscrupulous or incompetent importers could bring in dangerous items.

Infected farms sealed off
It reported on the inability of overworked and under-resourced port health officers to examine every consignment arriving here, and on the small number of samples that are tested.

In one case, environment health officers at London's Heathrow airport intercepted, by pure chance, a suitcase containing cooked monkeys, imported from west Africa.

So it is easy enough for the foot-and-mouth virus to arrive in the UK at any time.

And once the virus is here, modern farming as good as rolls out the red carpet to greet it.

Preventing the spread

Animals kept in close confinement, reared at close quarters, will inevitably infect one another very quickly.

That is not to pass judgement on intensive pig-rearing on animal welfare grounds, though some pigs reared in large units live wretched lives.

It is simply to point out that animals given more space and air may be at less risk of catching diseases from their neighbours.

That, though, would make their meat more expensive, and cheap food has been the watchword of successive UK Governments for half a century.

Another way of reducing the price of meat is to aim for economies of scale when it comes to slaughter.

In 15 years the number of slaughterhouses in the UK fell from more than 1,000 to fewer than 400.

The Essex abattoir where the first suspect animal in the current outbreak was identified normally kills animals brought from the Isle of Wight in southern England, from Scotland and from Northern Ireland.

There is an argument for transporting animals the shortest possible distance to slaughter, to minimise stress and the risk of injury.

That argument is now reinforced by the realisation that trucking sick pigs the length of the country is a highly effective way of spreading the foot-and-mouth virus far and wide.

But it does make the meat cheaper.

Without fundamental changes in farming and radical improvements in port surveillance, we remain at high risk of new disease outbreaks every day.

Not all of them will be as unthreatening to human health as foot-and-mouth.

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