FARMERS across Britain are threatening to form a breakaway body in protest at the way the National Farmers Unions handling the foot-and-mouth crisis. Many say they feel betrayed by the NFU which has sanctioned the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of healthy animals and ignored their pleas for an alternative control method.
Their anger will be fuelled by a document obtained by the Sunday Express which shows that the union ignored advice from its lawyers that killing of non-infected animals is illegal under European law.
Last month, the union received a report from a London-based law firm highlighting European rules governing the slaughter of animals in the event of a foot-and-mouth crisis.
The report states that of two EU directives on the issue neither "provide for the slaughter of healthy animals which are not on a holding containing infected animals".
The lawyers point out that although the Ministry Of Agriculture (MAFF) has the power to investigate non-infected livestock on farms close to confirmed outbreaks, that power does not "oblige the competent authority to slaughter any animals".
The document goes on: "Adjoining holdings which may have been contaminated are dealt with in Article 5 (4). However, that provision merely empowers authorities to take adequate samples. It does not empower them to slaughter- Article 9 obliges member states to establish a 3km protection zone around an Infected holding. There is no
express power to slaughter within that zone." Many farmers say the document is further proof that the NFU is pursuing its own agenda and that it no longer speaks for large sections of the industry
And one lawyer representing disgruntled farmers said: "There will be a backlash. The NFU has been acting as if its a Government department.
"I have lost count of the calls I have had from farmers who have rung the NFU only to be told to ring the MAFF helpline. That is not the sort of advice desperate and anxious people need."
Michael Hart, chairman of the Small and Family Farms Alliance in Cornwall, said: "The NFU is seen by the Government as the voice of the farmer but this crisis has shown the union is increasingly out of touch. The NFU has consistently lost members during every crisis since BSE and this will be no different - already it only represents about a third of the industry There are l00,000 farms in this country of less than 120 acres but their wishes have been ignored by MAFF and the NFU.
Helen Brownng, chairwoman of the Soil Association, said: "The NFU has set itself against vaccinations but I dont know why since everything suggests they would be a useful weapon. The NFU is not representative of the entire farming industry and there are a lot of farmers looking for another way to get their voice heard. From the people I have spoken to, it would not surprise me to see a breakaway union formed. With farmers getting no support from the NFU for another approach to this crisis, they are starting to wonder what they are paying their subs for."
The NFU insists that a programme of vaccinations for non-infected livestock could create a two-tier market for meat and dairy supplies In the UK and that consumers and retailers would be reluctant to purchase vaccinated meat. But at a meeting last week with Prime Minister Tony Blair, retailers explained that as most meat was already vaccinated for other diseases - and foot-and-mouth is not a human health problem - they would have no qualms about accepting produce from non-Infected animals.
But Tim Bennett, NFU deputy president, said: "The current strategy seems to be working and it is dangerous to change that mid-stream. Many scientists we have spoken to say they do not think vaccination is the right course of action. And we have to be careful, whatever people are saying now, that we have assurances that there would be a market for produce from vaccinated livestock.