UK Farmers Pray Outbreak Is Contained

The Associated Press
Monday, August 6, 2007; 6:02 PM

LONDON -- Michael Fordham remembers all too well the ravages of the foot-and-mouth epidemic that swept Britain in 2001 _ millions of cattle destroyed and a personal financial burden almost impossible to bear.

Six years later, government measures to contain a new outbreak of the highly contagious disease are threatening Fordham's farm of 90 head of cattle near the town of Uckfield in southern England.

"I couldn't believe it, it was absolutely staggering to think it could happen again," he said Monday. "And on top of all the flooding and bad weather."

Severe floods in June and July had already proved costly for farmers, and authorities were looking into the possibility that the flooding helped spread the virus.

On Monday night, authorities began slaughtering a new group of about 50 cattle suspected of being infected, Britain's Chief Veterinary Officer Debby Reynolds said. The cows were within the initial 2-mile radius protection zone officials set up Friday around the Surrey farm. About 120 cows were destroyed after the virus was first detected last week.

Test results from the new group were expected Tuesday, but the precautionary slaughter had already begun, Reynolds told Sky News.

The investigation was focusing on a research laboratory near the Surrey farm where two cattle were discovered with the disease last week. The strain of the disease found in the infected cattle is the same one used at the laboratory.

Fordham heard news of the outbreak when he switched on the TV after a day in the fields doing long overdue work prevented by the rising waters, such as haymaking.

Now, a swift ban imposed by the government on all movement of cattle, sheep, goats and pigs nationwide threatens the viability of Fordham's small store at Bradford Farm. He was unable to send selected cattle to the slaughterhouse this week, and a longer ban would eventually drain his supply of goods for sale.

At the national level, the Farmers Union said the government's voluntary ban on exports of livestock, meat and milk has already cost millions of dollars. The ban was imposed Saturday, a day after the discovery of the disease at the Surrey farm.

The European Commission endorsed Britain's ban Monday. Each week it lasts is expected to cost Britain millions more, and a long-term ban is also likely to cause the domestic price of British meat to plummet.

"We know from long and bitter experience that a ban on exports leads to very low prices," said National Farmers' Union director of communications Anthony Gibson. "Further price cuts could be the last straw for an awful lot of people."

The EU, which was accused of retaining its 2001 ban longer than necessary, tried to ease some of the economic impact this time. It said it would allow imports of animal products produced before July 15, which were treated in a way to inactivate the virus, and those manufactured in Britain but derived from animals reared outside the country.

Imports of British pigs and pork products have been banned by the United States, Japan, Russia and South Korea in response to the outbreak. The United States and Japan already have bans in place on British beef imports.

Britain's Meat and Livestock Commission said cattle and beef exports in 2006 were worth more than $200 million. Sheep and sheepmeat exports were valued at almost $510 million, while pig and pork exports accounted for nearly $360 million.

Exports of British beef only resumed in May 2006, reversing a 10-year ban that followed the discovery of a link between bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, and the variant Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease in humans.

Many farmers are still recovering from the outbreak of foot-and-mouth in 2001, when 7 million animals were slaughtered, costing the economy around $17 billion.

"By its nature, farming is a long term business, with sheep flocks just coming out of the aftereffects of 2001," said Malcolm Corbett, the head of the National Farmers Union. "This is a real body blow to the livestock industry."

Along with domestic sales and exports, tourism could be hit.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision to shut down large swaths of the countryside and appeal for people to stay in the cities to avoid spreading the disease was blamed for worsening the 2001 outbreak's effect on tourism.

This time around, while keeping a tight reign on livestock movements, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has stressed that the countryside remains open to tourists.

Foot-and-mouth can be fatal among young hogs, sheep and cattle, while infection in older animals causes blistering on the mouth and tongue, reducing milk and meat production. Foot-and-mouth can be carried by wind and on the vehicles and clothes of people who come into contact with infected animals.

Whether the latest scare reaches the proportions of the 2001 epidemic depends on containment, and farmers have so far welcomed the government's efforts.

Brown visited an emergency response center in Reigate on Monday and promised "no resources will be spared to get to the bottom of this because we know the future of farming depends on it."

Meanwhile, Merial Animal Health, the private company that shares the research laboratory with the government's Institute for Animal Health, said it was temporarily resuming production of its foot-and-mouth vaccine to meet a government order for 300,000 doses of a strain-specific vaccine.

All Fordham can do is keep a close eye on his cattle _ it can take 10 days for symptoms to show in infected animals _ and hope the virus does not spread.

"You just pray when you see something resembling the symptoms, that it's not foot-and-mouth," he said. "We just hope this is an isolated incident."

© 2007 The Associated Press