Montréal, 31 mars 2001  /  No 80
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Ralph Maddocks is a retired textile executive and former management consultant. He lives in Cowansville.
by Ralph Maddocks
          There is something curious, if not amusing, about a government that has banned almost all guns except those owned by policemen and criminals who are exempted, and next intends to outlaw fox hunting and which has set about destroying thousands of inoffensive farm animals. City dwelling MPs lamented interminably in Parliament about the poor fox being hunted, using words like uncivilized and cruel, and presented the fox hunter as callous and as the embodiment of moral depravity. Yet they now slaughter thousands of « innocent animals » without any debate at all.
          All this slaughter is about foot-and-mouth disease, or FMD, which very rarely kills the animals that catch it. They almost always recover within a couple of weeks and it is rarely passed on to humans, and when it does it is only a mild infection. The meat from animals that have had it is fit to eat. In clinical terms, FMD is about as serious to animals, or to people, as is a bad cold. A virus causes it, a virus for which there is a cheap vaccine, and it would be better surely to vaccinate the animals rather than to destroy them. It is the height of hypocrisy to ban fox hunting on the one hand whilst supporting the mass slaughter of other animals on the other. 
          Why this policy of wholesale slaughter? The concern is of course economic. It is a financial issue, not an animal welfare issue, nor a human health one. No one abroad will buy British meat if it might be infected with FMD. That worldwide exclusion zone stems from British policies of the past. It was the British in the late 19th century who decided that foot-and-mouth should not be tolerated, but should be eliminated, shut out through the « cordon sanitaire »; it was they who in the 1950s, encouraged first the Continent and then the rest of the world into following suit. Now it is Britain that, ironically, must live with the results of that policy.  
Apocalypse Cow 
          Foot-and-mouth disease reduces an animal's milk yield and its rate of putting on of flesh. However, there are no figures showing by how much these things are reduced. The reason being that no one in Britain, since the 1920s, has seen the disease take its full course. All animals infected with it have been immediately slaughtered. The huge economic cost that is now being incurred, the reduction in productivity, the fear of further economic loss, is what lies behind the elimination policy. 
          Britons have listened to talk of a « national emergency » and remarks about « staring into the abyss » and have even heard mention of Armageddon in the nation's newspapers that recently sported headlines such as « Apocalypse Cow ». Strict transport restrictions have been imposed, major sporting events have been cancelled, the army has been called in and vets have been brought in from outside the country. These outsiders may cause future problems if they are not around to answer questions posed by surviving farmers regarding decisions they made. These same vets, because of alleged concerns for public safety, are not allowed to carry arms. In the 1967 outbreak they were allowed to carry guns, but it seems that under Mr Blair vets are considered irresponsible. Vets have also been told, by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, MAFF, that if they recommend prophylaxis such as homeopathic borax they will lose their licences. 
          Whole areas of the country have been isolated, which means that a favourite activity of many Britons, rambling through the countryside, has been banned. Village dwellers in the heart of the English countryside are confronted with signs threatening $12,000 fines for walking on pathways or bridle paths. 
          Even Hackney council, a local authority in London that is usually incapable of providing its taxpayers with decent services of any kind – or of even keeping its streets clean – moved with unprecedented speed to proclaim its commitment to the cause of national unity against foot-and-mouth disease. There seems to be a severe outbreak of irrational anxieties, inflamed by an epidemic of panic, spreading fast to places where people never saw an edible animal alive in their entire lifetimes. The FMD crisis appears to have exposed the government's insecurity and, like the fuel protests, has caught them off guard and without any clear ideas about how to deal with the crisis. Ministers without any knowledge of agriculture and civil servants, seemingly transfixed by the enormity of the problem, reacting far too slowly to the outbreak have all played a part. 
          MAFF, allegedly a graveyard for civil servants, wrote to Magdalen College, Oxford telling them how to protect their Deer Park from foot-and-mouth disease. According to a college spokesman; « They advised us not to milk the deer! » One would hope that this is not at all indicative of the quality of advice they're providing to Britain's farmers.  
          First, MAFF blamed the outbreak on supermarkets for their reliance upon animals raised using modern intensive agricultural technology. Then abruptly, they blamed it on the use of pigswill which is rather low tech, having been in use for centuries. However, only one per cent of pigs in Britain is fed swill so the ban would affect fewer than 100 farmers.  
Now and then 
          Unlike the 1967 outbreak, today's Labour government has a much larger majority and the economy over which it presides is much stronger. Yet somehow the government seems paralysed and instead of treating the outbreak as a minor inconvenience has created panic and a sense of national catastrophe. On the contentious issue of the animal slaughter policy it remains unclear why those animals which are slaughtered for prevention purposes are not allowed to enter the food chain given no risk to humans.  
          It seems again part of the « image » issue: that the UK should not be seen as marketing meat which could have been infected regardless of the fact that such meat cannot currently be exported or come in further contact with uninfected animals on farms. The slaughter policy this time is different from that used in 1967 when the slaughtered animals were buried in lime pits to avoid airborne transmission of the virus. Today, they are transporting animals, even burning them, which carries with it the risk of airborne contamination. Only late in the epidemic have they begun burial as in 1967. 
     « There seems to be a severe outbreak of irrational anxieties, inflamed by an epidemic of panic, spreading fast to places where people never saw an edible animal alive in their entire lifetimes. » 
          Many other things have changed since the 1967 outbreak and there is little doubt that some of those changes may well have exacerbated the problem. The costs imposed to meet European Union health regulations regarding abattoirs caused a huge decline in their numbers from 1500 to less than 400. This increased the distances which animals must travel to be slaughtered and thus increased the chances of infection in other animal herds in this very high-density stock rearing country. Given the very infectious nature of FMD, the slaughter policy introduced by the present government is not effective under such conditions. In 1967 almost all cases were slaughtered within 2 days. The EU directives call for « the slaughter and safe disposal of the carcasses "without delay" and with no risk of spreading the virus. If the authorities are "overwhelmed" in this process this is seen as an indication for the use of vaccination. » 
          There is also a great deal of argument about the actual start time of this outbreak with the MAFF identifying disease in a pig unit in Cumbria in northern England on 22nd February. This is being contrasted with a report that a French stock dealer operating out of the UK, had sent infected sheep to France on 31th January. Using an average incubation period, this means that the animals which infected the dealer's sheep were most probably exposed to infection between 3-8 days prior to contact – i.e., between 23-28 January. It has been fairly well established that none of the stock dealer's sheep came directly from the Cumbrian pig unit, so they cannot have been infected by the alleged « case zero » pigs.  
          There must have been at least one other set of animals that bridged the gap between the pig unit and the sheep on the ferry to France. For the pigs themselves to pass on the infection to these animals, they must have been infected earlier, between 7-22 January. Without elaborating on the complexities of this, the latest time for the disease to be visible in the pig unit is then 25th January. Yet even today MAFF is prepared only to concede that the infection may have been present two weeks prior to the 22nd or about 8th February. Adding to the clouds of suspicion surrounding this affair were reports of MAFF officials making inquiries about purchasing « burn timber » in November of last year.  
Cheap sheep 
          Fuelling the suspicion that there is more to this than meets the eye is a report that eight days before the official outbreak of FMD in the UK the Dutch dairy industry met with the Dutch Agriculture Minister to discuss tactics if FMD were to reach Holland from the UK. Another report emerged last week that in 1998, Agriculture Ministers from the EU met in secret session to discuss a plan put forward by the European Commission to abolish livestock farming in the English region and to convert it instead to arable production.  
          What was significant was that the early control policy could not work. It was based upon three principles: early identification, isolation and slaughter, all in an attempt to eradicate the disease before it spreads. Logically, and essentially, the success of this policy depends upon the identification of the disease before it has spread widely into the animal population. If the disease has already spread widely, and/or if not all the pockets of infection are known, this calls into question the whole basis of the policy. In fact, owing to the fact that the disease may have started a month before its official detection and given the massive scale of movements, both legal and illegal, the epidemic was already out of control before the Ministry's counter-measures began. The large number of cases reported, their wide geographical spread, and the multi-species distribution are further evidence of that. 
          In the major sheep-rearing areas it is reported that infection rates are up to 80 percent. Most of these animals have already had the disease, relatively mild in sheep, and a level of herd immunity has been built up. Slaughtering these animals, will not assist control, but may in fact aid its spread by reducing « herd immunity » and leave unprotected animals more vulnerable. Therefore, the obvious policy there would be to abandon sheep slaughter – except for individual cases, where animals are in distress. Instead they are clearing large areas of Cumbria of everything that moves – healthy or diseased – except cattle. Sheep farmers are being wiped out, one commentator reported that they are even slaughtering sheepdogs, llamas and pedigree alpacas. The government has even mobilized the Army Catering Corps. They are shipping double-decker truckloads of perfectly healthy animals, in the race to slaughter the majority of Britain's sheep and throw them into the deepest, man-made pit in Cumbria.  
          Since the denizens of the countryside are in general opposed to Labour's banning of fox hunting, being considered largely Conservatives when they vote, it has been suggested that the general election, expected for early May, should be postponed. Not to do so, given the movement bans in force in rural areas, would doubtless increase the urban vote which lacks knowledge of the needs of the countryside and tends to vote Labour. Having farmers quarantined on the farm with their postal votes at the mercy of the predominantly Labour supporting postmen could even swing a few partly rural seats to Labour. 
          Anyway, urban antipathy to farmers is legendary, and they cannot expect any sympathy from town dwellers. However, the poor short term prospects for the economy means that Blair is neatly trapped. If he goes to the country now, then he runs the risk that a stock market crash or a bad day on the currency markets will dominate media coverage during the election. On the other hand if he waits, then people may be feeling the economic pain at election time. 
Fast moving story 
          As panic spread throughout the United Kingdom, Canada's government responded by introducing its own controls on incoming visitors and raw milk cheese. One might wonder how an epidemic of FMD might be stopped from spreading by airline passengers shuffling through mats containing disinfectant. Sniffing dogs detect the importation of meats and other food products by sniffing at traveller's luggage while the FMD panic has taken on a life of its own and is spreading far beyond the agricultural world. The news of British soldiers coming to train in Alberta raised the spectre of FMD to new heights. Given the earlier date of the UK outbreak and the fact that disease had not been detected here before any disinfectant measures were introduced may help to put matters into some kind of perspective. The virus seems to be more the occasion of the panic than its true cause; seemingly driven by other forces, both social and political. 
          In a fast moving story such as this it is hard to keep up with the state of play. The latest news is that the EU has approved limited vaccination (180,000 shots), some fifty days after the earliest outbreak date given by MAFF. It is confined to cattle in areas where sheep infection rates are very high and will not affect the remaining 12 million vulnerable cattle now about to leave the barns and be turned out to grass. This apparently cynical manoeuvre comes with the knowledge that continental Europe has huge meat surpluses following the BSE scare. You never know who your friends are in a crisis! 
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