Page last updated at 01:54 GMT, Thursday, 29 May 2008 02:54 UK

Labs escape outbreak prosecution

Pirbright laboratory
Pirbright laboratories were labelled 'dilapidated'

The animal health laboratories at the centre of last summer's foot-and-mouth disease outbreak will not be prosecuted, Surrey County Council says.

Eight farms were infected with the disease and farmers lost millions due to livestock movement restrictions.

Investigators concluded the virus had probably escaped from a drain at the government's Pirbright labs in Surrey.

But the council says it is impossible to tell which of the bodies using the site was responsible for the leak.

A series of probes found the source was probably a damaged drain shared by the Institute of Animal Health and drug company Merial.

But there is no clear evidence of exactly how the leak happened or which organisation was the exact source.

Surrey County Council is calling for tougher regulations to make every shared site have one organisation to take overall responsibility for such matters.

It also wants fines for those breaching the rules to be increased from the current maximum of £5,000 and for the directors of research facilities to be held individually accountable for disease leaks.

The National Union of Farmers said the decision not to prosecute was "understandable" but that Merial and the IAH must not be allowed to "hide" behind unclear divisions of responsibility.

'Shabby and dilapidated'

A spokesman said: "The foot and mouth outbreak had a massive effect on the local and national economy. The NFU is considering the potential civil liability of the two laboratories."

The most recent inquiry into last year's outbreak, by Iain Anderson who led the review into the 2001 foot and mouth crisis, called for greater clarity of responsibility and ownership at Pirbright.

He criticised the "creeping degradation of standards" at the site, which he labelled "shabby and dilapidated".

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the government had accepted and was implementing the recommendations of a review into the regulatory framework for handling animal diseases.

It said inspections continued to take place at Pirbright to make sure the IAH and Merial had put in place the measures needed to prevent another outbreak.

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