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Foot and mouth crisis

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Issue 1740

Foot and mouth crisis

Market-driven disease

THERE IS a contradiction at the heart of the response to the foot and mouth outbreak. The policy of keeping a disease-free zone in Britain and the European Union without immunisation is undermined by the push to greater trade and movement of live animals.

This is made worse by profit-driven changes to farming in recent decades. Small farmers have been driven to the wall under pressure from the giant supermarkets and large businesses which now dominate food and farming. Less than 20 percent of farms in Britain are now classed as “family owned”.

Over four fifths are now big businesses, run by bankers and managers. Five giant supermarkets account for four fifths of food sales. The last major outbreak of foot and mouth in Britain was in 1967. It remained largely confined to a few areas, unlike the present outbreak which has spread rapidly across Britain and beyond. Farms are now an average six times bigger in area than in 1967. The average animal flock size in 1967 was 100. Today it is 1,000-with many far larger. One effect is that the disease is harder to spot in a vast flock of several thousand.

With proper veterinary support that need not be a problem. But government cuts and privatisation have decimated Britain’s vet service.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation warned that Britain’s veterinary service “coherence” was “being destroyed by the drive to reduce the public sector”. In the last ten years the number of state vets in Britain has been slashed by a fifth and the number of regional animal health offices cut in half. Big businesses have also concentrated slaughter in a few giant abattoirs. Live animals are transported over long distances in often unsanitary conditions, making it easier for disease to spread.

They also routinely ship live animals across the country and beyond for no other reason than to extract more profit. A classic example is that animals can be shipped from Devon to Scotland for two weeks and then back again to be slaughtered, simply to put the label “Scotch beef” on the meat and so charge a premium price.

The result, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation says, is that “the movement of animals and animal products for trade is leading to an increased spread of animal disease”. From a rational point of view, it makes more sense to slaughter animals for food near where they are produced. If the meat needs to be moved afterwards, that is quite possible with no risk of spreading disease in refrigerated or frozen form-as anyone who has bought New Zealand lamb knows.

At the heart of the foot and mouth crisis is the contradiction between a cost-driven policy of not immunising, and the profit-motivated increased concentration and movement of live animals.

The same factors lie behind outbreaks elsewhere in the world. Japan had its first foot and mouth outbreak since 1980 last year, and South Korea its first outbreak since 1938. Even in the middle of a foot and mouth crisis big business is out for profit. “The longer it takes Korea to regain FMD [foot and mouth disease] free status the more time US pork suppliers will have to increase market share in Japan,” was the cold verdict of the US Department of Agriculture.

The same logic of chasing market share and profit underpins much of the British and European response to foot and mouth. As the Financial Times admitted, the key drive behind the government’s response to the crisis is not primarily animal or human health, but “lucrative export markets for breeding animals and meat”.

Slaughter money

BRITAIN AND the European Union are major exporters of live animals and meat products. British exports last year were worth some 400 million. Other European countries had a different approach. From the 1950s most European countries started large scale vaccination of herds.

But in the 1990s, under British pressure, this was changed. Across Europe vaccination was abandoned in favour of mass slaughter. Vaccination had reduced foot and mouth disease across Europe to the point where it was becoming increasingly rare. The argument was then that the cost of keeping up annual vaccination was too high, and it was more economical to maintain Europe as a disease-free zone by mass slaughter if any outbreak occurred.

The official European commission for foot and mouth disease said, “By 1992 Europe was free of the disease and decided to stop the costly annual mass vaccination campaigns.” The problem was that the abandonment of vaccination created an animal population which has no immunity to foot and mouth. The European Union warned in 1997 what could soon happen as a result:

“A fully susceptible farm animal population prevails at present in the EU countries, potentially threatened by border countries where the disease is widespread. The disease currently represents a constant threat to Europe, as witnessed over the last 12 months in the Balkans, with the outbreaks in Italy (1993) and Greece (1994).”

This risk of disease spreading through animal flocks which now had no immunity was fuelled by the very free market that politicians tell us is the only way to run society. The catastrophic “transition to the market” in the former USSR has seen foot and mouth resurface with a vengeance.

The annual animal herd vaccination in the former USSR was stopped in 1991 as the economy plunged into chaos. That chaos-wars and privatisation-has since decimated veterinary services. As a result Georgia, which had no foot and mouth outbreaks in the 1980s, had 32 separate outbreaks in 1997.

The disease has also resurfaced elsewhere. In Iraq it reappeared on a far greater scale than for many years in 1999 as a result of Western bombing and sanctions. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation argued, “The animal disease situation in Iraq has been aggravated by the collapse of the veterinary infrastructure, and disease investigation, surveillance and diagnostic services in the country. “The government has been unable to adequately control the spread of this disease, partly because of the difficulties it has in obtaining equipment and supplies, particularly vaccines.”

The facts

FOOT AND mouth is a mild viral infection of animals like sheep, pigs, cows and goats. It was common across Britain and Europe throughout the 19th century. The disease is not generally fatal to animals, and there is no danger to humans. Infected animals get ill, with symptoms a bit like human cold sores, and generally recover within a few weeks. Some animals suffer a loss of weight and lower milk yields which cuts profits.

Controls were first introduced in the late 19th century under pressure from rich, aristocratic cattle breeders. At that time Britain exported mainly industrial goods and imported agricultural ones.

One exception was the lucrative export of pedigree breeding cattle, a trade monopolised by some of the wealthiest landowners. These landowners demanded controls in case infected imports spread foot and mouth to their flocks. This was the origin of the policy of mass slaughter. Wealthy cattle breeders’ flocks were not slaughtered-they were allowed to isolate them. Smaller farmers saw animals slaughtered to protect the disease-free status-and profits-of this wealthy minority of landowners.

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