COVER STORY: Britain's foot and mouth outbreak - the global link
by Patrick J. Byrne
News Weekly, March 24, 2001
The spread of foot and mouth to Britain stands as a salutary lesson to those inside and outside the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) who have been pressing for a relaxation of our strict quarantine regime. It raises serious questions about the AQIS decision to allow uncooked Danish pork into Australia, some of which spilt into the Clarence River system in NSW last year, when a transport van overturned.
Pat Byrne reports.
"On the farm I examined an old Friesian cow, she looked at me with obvious pain in her eyes, tongue protruding. I held out my hand and placed it on the end of her badly blistered tongue, which to my great dismay simply came off in my hand leaving a raw ulcerated area behind. The cow trembled with pain ...
"A trench 250 yards long was dug and lined with straw. Wooden railway sleepers were then laid across the straw followed by cows with pigs placed in between. This whole site was then covered with two feet of straw, sprayed with 600 gallons of diesel and lit. The fire lit the day and night sky for two days and at the end only ash remained.
"My most poignant memories even today were of the farmers and staff who lost their herds and in many cases their livelihoods. The stoicism and realism with which they accepted the outcome was quite remarkable and they had my greatest admiration."
This was how consultant Mike Muirhead recently described his memories of the 1967 foot and mouth disease outbreak in the UK, which saw the destruction of 400,000 animals.
While the 1967 outbreak was confined to the region around Cheshire, today many Britons are asking how the disease could have entered and spread across Britain and Northern Ireland, and now continental Europe?
The increased global trade in food, the drive of multinational supermarket chains to source their food as cheaply as possible anywhere in the world, relaxation of quarantine regulations, weakened veterinary and waste services, the drive for cheaper food for consumers, increasing concentration of agriculture into larger farms along with fewer abattoirs, illegal smuggling of animals, increasing tourism, are all making foot and mouth a more common global animal disease.
In the past two years, foot and mouth disease has broken out in 60 countries.
They include Israel, Greece, Japan, Brazil and Uruguay, all of which were previously declared free of the disease by the World Organisation of Animal Health office.
In Britain, "efficiency" measures adopted since the time of Margaret Thatcher are believed to have contributed to the problem.
According to British Customs and Excise, hundreds of tons of pork and beef are being regularly imported from countries such as Uruguay, Brazil, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Swaziland and Botswana where recent outbreaks of the disease have occurred. Supermarkets are sourcing these products from wherever is cheapest around the globe.
Supermarkets have also set up "just-in-time" supply chains to minimise the cost of holding stock. That in turn demands the movement of vast supplies of food around the UK very quickly.
With the closure of 1,022 abattoirs since 1985, the remaining 387 "more efficient" abattoirs have seen the average number of animals slaughtered go from 12,313 to 32,729 per week. This has meant that livestock are centrally pooled and transported across Britain, and across the EU, on a daily basis.
Economically "efficient" these new arrangements may be in the short term, but the cost of the spread of diseases like foot and mouth may far outweigh the rationalist calculations of economists and supermarkets seeking to maximise profits.
The cost of the disease will not be borne by either the supermarkets or the decision makers, but largely by the farmers and the taxpayers.
Now Prime Minister Tony Blair has admitted that the five major supermarkets have British farmers "in an arm lock". A legally enforceable code of conduct that demands a fairer relationship between supermarkets and farmers is being drafted, with an ombudsman to be appointed to settle disputes.
The code will say that food diversity is an important part of the food chain and that supermarkets should be aware of their role in maintaining healthy competition and diversity.
As well as the new code, the Government has said it would review the supermarket's system of "just-in-time" supply chains; examine the feasibility of smaller, locally based abattoirs; and investigate the role of dealers who move animals to different markets across the country in a chase for the best price.
It is not yet clear how the virulent "type O" strain of foot and mouth virus entered the UK. It is similar to, but not exactly the same as, that found in South Africa last year.
First identified in India in 1990, in South Africa it was traced to food waste off-loaded illegally from an Asian boat in Durban harbour and used as pigswill.
It could have entered Britain on cured or dried meat or on a carcass. Cooking meat kills the virus.
Investigators want to examine the catering waste that was fed as pigswill at Bobby Waugh's Northumberland farm, the primary source of the outbreak.
Although international food waste from planes is not allowed to be fed as swill, it has been suggested that the swill could have come from airline meals at Newcastle airport. Mr Waugh said they came from school meals.
It could also have come from contaminated imported pig rations, or from carelessly discarded foreign infected meat product, as was believed to have caused last year's outbreak of swine fever in Britain.
Clarissa Dickson-Wright, of Two Fat Ladies fame, along with some British backbench MPs, has suggested the possibility of sabotage. The story goes that just before Christmas animal welfare activists were seen in the vicinity of Mr Waugh's farm, where the outbreak started. In that case, they would have had to import the virus from somewhere and then got it onto the farm. The incubation period is such that it would have broken out well before February 10. Highly unlikely.
Another theory is that contaminated meat could have been imported legally into Britain without having been inspected for foot and mouth.
Understaffed veterinary services and lack of notification to the authorities in some countries may mean that contaminated animals have not been spotted before being exported. Meat has been imported from Thailand and Japan, where the disease is thought to have originated.
There is no inspection system in Britain for the disease. The Food Standards Agency, set up by Tony Blair to protect consumers, can only rely on meat packers and distributors being honest enough not to trade in illegal or contaminated meat.
Once in Britain, contaminated meat would have passed into the wholesale market and catering trade, whose waste, including pork and beef, is often used in pigswill - usually a mash of waste meat, cereals and vegetable matter. Most pigswill is prepared by heating it to 1000C and boiling it for one hour. It is possible that corners were cut, or that the heat treatment does not always destroy contamination.
"Meat is coming in from all over the world without any inspection and certainly none for foot and mouth," The Guardian was told by the director of a major meat importer in the Midlands, who asked not to be named.
Under the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, Britain cannot inspect food coming in from other EU countries, as that would be considered a restriction on trade. Hence, if food comes into (say) Italy from Africa, it can be freely transported into Britain without inspection.
The virus which causes foot and mouth disease can be carried on the wind, up to 35 miles over land and 180 miles over water. It can be spread by almost anything.
There are seven main types of the virus with many different strains within each type. This makes the preparation of effective vaccines for specific outbreaks extremely difficult. Vaccines are only effective for three to four months.
There is no treatment for the disease which causes great pain and suffering, particularly in cows.
Were a country to accept vaccination instead of destroying infected animals, the disease would become "endemic", or permanently present in the population. That country would be classed as an "infected area" and would not be able to sell or market animals to other countries.
Between 1951 and 1991 the number of farmers in England and Wales declined from 327,000 to 178,000. Over the past two years, one-third of farmers have left the land. The number of farmers is now below 100,000.
In the 19th century, as much as a quarter of the work force was in farming. Now it is about one percent.
All of British agriculture represents just 1.3 percent of GDP - a little smaller than the packaged-sandwich industry. The British farm industry is now so small that the foot and mouth disease crisis didn't even register an effect on the London Stock Exchange.
The foot and mouth outbreak in the UK highlights the need to apply strong quarantine rules strictly across the whole of the EU.
It also says to Australian farmers that they will have to be vigilant if local politicians and bureaucrats try to negotiate any free trade agreements with the US or any other nation. We cannot afford to have our quarantine rules watered down and and have our relatively disease-free agricultural industries compromised in the name of "free trade".