Foot and mouth
Policy ruled by profits
By Paul Mcgarr
THE GOVERNMENT'S chief vet was claiming last week that the foot and mouth epidemic was "fully under control". Whether the chief vet's confidence is justified will be tested in the coming weeks.
What is clear is that at every stage of the crisis the government's policy has been driven by the demands of business, and not by what is best for either human or animal welfare. There were claims on Monday that a man had contracted foot and mouth disease. Even if that proved true it would be exceptional and the condition would not be especially serious. The disease does not normally kill even animals.
There is certainly nothing at all wrong with the meat of the healthy animals now being slaughtered. Yet the government's mass slaughter and disposal policy has risked creating very real human health problems.
There have been protests around the country in recent days over both the policy of burning slaughtered animals in the open air, and over dumping carcasses in landfill sites. Even the government admits that burning risks spreading poisonous and cancer-causing chemicals like dioxins to nearby towns. And people are quite right to worry about pollution, such as of groundwater by rotting carcasses dumped into landfill sites.
The government has got itself into an almighty mess over foot and mouth because it won't challenge the dogmas of an agriculture and food supply system based on profit and "free trade". Look at the issue of vaccination. When the crisis first erupted the government firmly ruled out vaccination. It changed its mind as the crisis seemed to spiral out of control.
But it then retreated as it ran into fierce opposition from leaders of the National Farmers Union and sections of big business. These twists and turns have nothing to do with any rational response to the disease. The Reuters news agency accurately reported, "The latest row about whether to vaccinate some animals to try to contain the disease centres on money."
Vaccination instead of mass slaughter makes perfect sense from any rational viewpoint. It is what most European countries used to do until the early 1990s, until under British pressure they dropped annual vaccination of animal flocks. One reason for that shift was a cold calculation that it was cheaper to risk an occasional epidemic, and then resort to mass slaughter, than the annual cost of vaccination.
That calculation may prove to be wrong if the costs of the slaughter programme and compensation payments to farmers continue to spiral upwards. Vaccination would protect animals from foot and mouth, and would mean no need for the kind of mass slaughter we are seeing. Meat and other products from vaccinated animals are perfectly safe.
But some farmers, especially the larger export orientated ones, and giant agribusinesses don't want vaccination. Under international trade rules once a country starts vaccinating it loses official "foot and mouth free" status-even if there is no foot and mouth disease in the country.
Once that happens other countries are then entitled under those same trade rules to ban imports of meat, dairy and other products with animal-derived ingredients. So the big farmers and agribusinesses fear that a turn to vaccination could cost them lucrative export markets.
They worry that countries like the US will use Britain's loss of "foot and mouth free" status to permanently restrict or ban British products. This does not just affect meat, but also products which contain meat-derived products like gelatine. Richard George, managing director of Weetabix and chairman of the powerful Food and Drink Federation business lobby, attacked vaccination in a letter to the Times last week.
He insisted that "a policy of vaccination without culling could mean a permanent ban on UK meat and dairy products in many major non European Union markets". The ban would hit "exports of products such as confectionery, biscuits and breakfast cereals", argued the man from Weetabix, with an eye on the 3.26 billion a year meat, food and drink exports to non European Union countries. So thanks to international "free trade" rules and protecting the profits of people like this, millions of healthy animals are being slaughtered.
If any good is to come out of the crisis it should be a wider questioning of the "profits first" system, and debate over how to get a society that produces the food people need in a healthy, humane and sustainable way.