Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) - Dispelling the Myths

When a farmer hears the dreaded news that his farm animals have caught
foot and mouth disease, he knows that a lifetime of work will be
slaughtered within a few days. Farmers know that this has to happen in
order to control and eradicate the virus that causes the disease.

Foot and mouth can be a prolonged and distressing disease for animals of
all ages, especially for younger stock. Up to 90% of newborn lambs amongst
infected flocks have died recently. However, there are no implications for
the human food chain so you cannot catch FMD by eating meat.

Since the outbreak of foot and mouth began, the public and media continue
to ask whether the slaughter of animals is really necessary. Slaughter is
the preferred policy of our Government, the European Union, the UN Food
and Agriculture Organisation and the OIE (the intergovernmental body which
supervises control of epidemic animal disease). This is because:
FMD can survive in the respiratory tract of recovered animals during
which time they could then go on to infect other animals. Slaughter is the
only sure way of eradicating FMD.
Letting the disease work its way through the farmed livestock population
would significantly increase the chances of infecting wildlife creating a
vicious circle of re-infection.
Recovered animals are no longer fully productive farm animals because
their health is impaired: many are permanently lame, milk and meat yields
fall, conception rates drop and abortions increase.

The other question that is being asked time and time again regards the
vaccination of livestock  - and why we are not doing it. Vaccination is
illegal in the UK and we have always adopted a policy of eradication
through slaughter because:
Vaccination is not 100% effective.
It is not a one-off solution and needs to be done every six months
requiring considerable veterinary resources.
Vaccinated animals show antibodies in their system for up to 18 months.
This makes it impossible to distinguish between animals that have been
vaccinated and those that have been exposed to the disease. The result is
that the UK would lose its vital 'disease-free' status preventing animal
or meat exports for at least two years to come. With the annual value of
UK exports totalling 576 million, loss of our disease-free status would
spell the death of the UK livestock industry.
Vaccination accepts that you can only contain FMD, not eradicate it.
However, vaccination can also be used as a precursor to control through
slaughter with all vaccinated animals being killed as soon as possible.
This method of 'ring vaccination and slaughter' must not be confused with
permanent reliance on vaccines to control FMD. 

Some people still may feel that the slaughter policy is not working. This
is because the disease has not yet been contained and the number of new
cases is increasing each day. What has emerged is that the movements of
animals around the country prior to the movement ban were wider and more
complex than originally thought. The situation is particularly bad in
certain areas of the country and hotspots have been identified as Cumbria;
Devon; Dumfries & Galloway; and animals that moved through markets in
Northampton & Welshpool

Based on veterinary and epidemiological advice, the Government announced
on 15 March that it is dramatically stepping up its slaughter programme in
the worst hotspots of Cumbria and Dumfries & Galloway. All sheep, goats
and pigs within a 3km radius of known outbreaks are now classified as
'dangerous contacts' and will be slaughtered automatically, subject to a
risk assessment programme. This policy is being constantly reviewed.

This leads us on to "why slaughter healthy animals"? Whilst these animals
might look healthy, they are like a timebomb waiting to go off. Sheep can
harbour the disease for months without displaying any symptoms. Thus
making detection extremely difficult. Pigs are a hundred times more
infectious than sheep which significantly increases the risk of them
spreading the disease. The aim is to halt the spread of FMD by pre-empting
where the disease is likely to hit next and slaughtering these animals
sooner rather than later (when they would have to be slaughtered together
with all cattle on the farm).

At times, the slaughtering and removal of carcasses on farms has been
slow. This is because of the sheer scale of the operation. The valuing of
the animals, the volume of coal and railway sleepers required to build
pyres have held up the process. However, the NFU is playing a vital role
in hitting home to MAFF the desperate need for additional resources. To
give us the quickest control on the spread of the disease slaughtering
should take place within 24 hours of diagnosis with destruction within a
further 24 hours.

When a farm has been cleared, there are no specific time limits on when
re-stocking can begin. However, the business of rebuilding livestock
enterprises is likely to take many months. Firstly, a rigorous process of
disinfection - with the entire farm and its buildings being disinfected
several times over - must be undertaken. Farmers will then want to be
confident that FMD has been contained before making substantial
investments in new stock. Also, there is likely to be a rush on demand for
disease-free stock and this could lead to delays.

The public can be sure that farmers do care deeply for the health and
welfare of their animals. They are grieving for the premature loss of
animals to which they have devoted all their time, energy, expertise and
resources. It is particularly difficult for them at this time of year
because spring is traditionally the season of lambing and new life. And
most dairy farmers know their cows by name making the sense of personal
loss very real. The horror of mass slaughter and the stench of burning
pyres on their farms is further compounded by the sheer isolation and
uncertainty about what lies ahead.

Foot and Mouth is costing the industry millions. It is estimated that the
food supply chain - the agricultural industry, abattoirs and hauliers - is
currently losing 250 million per month. The ban on exports and the
restriction on moving animals around the country are financially
catastrophic. Exports of beef, lamb and pork are worth 579 million a
year. The list of further knock-on costs is endless. Farmers are losing
interest on their capital, they have extra feed costs, the loss of
condition and therefore value of stock, extra animal medicine costs and
extra management costs if they have to employ more staff.  Those who own
farm bed and breakfasts, shops and other diversifications also experience
loss of income - this could cost at least 30 million a month. And when
these losses are set against the stark fact that farm incomes fell by over
two thirds in the last 5 years to just 5,200 for the average farm, the
picture becomes bleaker still

British farmers play a vital role in producing food to the highest
standards of safety, animal welfare and the environment. They also provide
an essential public service protecting and enhancing the countryside for
the benefit of the nation as a whole, and the leisure and tourist
industries in particular. It is therefore appropriate that when the
Government orders animals to be destroyed that farmers should receive
compensation. This is standard practice for handling any animal disease
and some of the money will come from the EU.

For the sake of our farm animals we must all work together to eradicate
this disease from the British Isles and we urge shoppers to carry on
buying British meat  - with confidence. The entire industry is working
hard to ensure that supplies continue to reach shops. Shoppers should look
out for the British Farm Standard (little red tractor logo) which is
carried by British meat reared to independently verified standards of food
safety, animal welfare and the environment.