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Foot and mouth special: the silver lining?

[Monday 06 August 2007]

In this Daelnet special, our countryside commentator John Sheard, who covered the 2001-2002 FMD debacle for us every day for months on end, hopes that there is a silver lining to the present outbreak in Surrey

THE NEWS last weekend that foot and mouth disease had broken out in Surrey landed like a bombshell - and not just on every farm in Britain. Here in the Yorkshire Dales, it stunned the owners of hundreds of small businesses dependent on the tourist industry, many of whom were driven to the edge of bankruptcy by the last outbreak.

fmd 2001
Malham during the 2001 outbreak

It cast a deep gloom here at Daelnet, too, for reporting the last 2001-2002 crisis, day in, day out, for months on end, was a deeply disturbing process. For unlike members of the national media, we lived in the affected area, knew as close friends some of the devastated families - and fumed for weeks at the total incompetence at a Government which had allowed a controllable crisis to turn into a national, then international, disaster.

But - God willing - there seems to be a silver lining to this new black cloud on the agricultural horizon, even though this morning it seems more like a scenario from a science fiction movie rather than an animal health issue.

That silver lining is that A) the vets and scientists at Defra seem to know what they are doing this time; B) new Prime Minister Gordon Brown seems to be firmly in charge and C) perhaps the most important of all, the experts seem fairly confident that they know the source of the disease.

None of these things applied last time round. Then, with Tony Blair facing a general election for his second term, there were allegations that the first confirmation of the disease in Northumberland were hushed up: no-one in New Labour wanted the voting public distracted by a strange cattle disease in the wilds in the North East.

Whether that was true or not has never been established (at least, not to my knowledge: who knows what some secret file in Westminster says? But whatever the truth, there was a critical two week delay before livestock movements were banned and, by that time, the disease had spread to almost half the country via livestock sales in Cumbria.

This time, the Government and Defra got to grips within hours. A new prime minister is acting with his "clunking fist" to use one of his nicknames: he has ordered officials to report on the source of the infection by tomorrow if that is scientifically possible.

And then there's the key difference between now and 2001. Again, as far as I know, the source of that infection was never officially proved but there are thousands of farmers who are convinced that it came from cheap beef imported from either Argentina or Brazil, where FMD is endemic.

It was reported at the time that the first victims were pigs fed on swill collected from throughout the North, some from Chinese restaurants, but there was another suspect: allegations that cheap imported beef was being fed to thousands of soldiers at Catterick, the British Army's biggest base.

I never saw that possibility fully investigated, either, but could that be because it was acutely embarrassing for a Government facing re-election to be shown to be feeding cheap meat to its own troops at a time when British farmers were only slowly recovering from the ravages of the previous BSE "mad cow" disease crisis?

This time, if the weekend's forecasts are to be proved right (touch wood!) the infection may have spread from two animal health laboratories at Pirbright. This, of course, is a matter of the gravest concern - but knowing the source makes it easier to combat as well as providing some relief for farmers.

That is the silver lining, a rare comfort in the circumstances. I hope it proves to be the correct solution. Because we are still importing cheap meat from South America and, according to my contacts, the inspection controls on those imports are very weak.

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