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The great foot-and-mouth myths

May 5, 2001 The Independent (London) by Chris Blackhurst

Did it begin: a) on a pig farm in Northumberland; b) as a result of a dodgy Chinese takeaway; or c) because of a break-in at Porton Down? As Tony Blair declares the foot-and-mouth crisis nearly over, Chris Blackhurst tiptoes through the slurry of Britain's greatest farming disaster. Nearly three months ago, a vet at an abattoir in Essex ran a routine check on pigs from Buckinghamshire and the Isle of Wight. Alarmed by what he found, he ordered an examination of all the farms that had sent pigs to the slaughterhouse in the last few days. The checks revealed that the Buckinghamshire and Isle of Wight animals had picked up foot-and-mouth from pigs from a farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall in Northumberland.

So began what has become one of the greatest crises to hit Britain's farming and tourism industries - a crisis that, some would say, has badly damaged the nation's standing in the eyes of the rest of the world. (Britain is suffering from a collective nervous breakdown, was the verdict of one French magazine.)

It is an infection that, despite the confident assertion by the Prime Minister this week that Britain is on the "home straight" in combating the disease, still rages in parts of the countryside - in North Cumbria and Devon. Fields and pens lie empty, hotels and boarding houses are still deserted, many footpaths remain closed, 2.5 million animals have been culled, millions of pounds have been paid out in compensation.

Despite Tony Blair's confidence, Britain is still in the grip of a virus that rarely kills the animals it infects and in some parts of the world is regarded almost as a fact of daily life. This Bank Holiday weekend sees one of the year's great escapes, when families head for the coast, the countryside, anywhere to avoid their bleak urban surroundings. This year, as at Easter, many of them will choose to turn their backs on nature and stay put. Why? Who is to blame for this fiasco, for turning our green and pleasant land into a no-go zone? Since the crisis began we have been subjected to a deluge of ministry briefings, stories, facts and numbers, until it is hard to separate fact from fiction, truth from myth. Here, we tiptoe through the slurry that is the start of the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak.

It began in Bobby Waugh's pig farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall

Yes, said the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff). No, say plenty of people involved in farming who point to lots of evidence that it started earlier, elsewhere, probably in sheep. Mr Waugh's pigs had foot-and -mouth, of that there is no doubt - Mr Waugh himself says that they were in a terrible state by the time they came to be slaughtered.

But the condition of Mr Waugh's pigs in mid-February does not explain how at least two shipments of sheep in January from Brecon and Ross-on- Wye to France bore foot-and-mouth antibodies before the outbreak officially began. Maff suggests it is possible the (documented) French tests produced a false result - possible but unlikely, and heavily denied by the French.

It was the Chinese wot did it

Maff officials suggested "off the record" that Mr Waugh's pigs contracted the virus from eating swill made from contaminated meat discarded from Chinese restaurants.

The swill was cooked by Mr Waugh's neighbour, Jimmy Brown, then transferred to his farm at Burnside. Mr Brown's own pigs did not develop foot-and- mouth. They were destroyed on Maff's orders because they were close to the infected farm at Burnside.

Almost unnoticed, during the media furore over the "Sophie Wessex Tapes", Mr Brown - that's Nick Brown, the Agriculture Secretary, not Jimmy, the pig farmer - shifted the Ministry's stance on "the Chinese connection", saying the source of the infection had not been "positively identified" and officials were still investigating. This was quite at odds with the original position when newspapers were being encouraged by Maff to focus on illegally imported meat intended for sweet and sour and chow mein in Newcastle's numerous Oriental takeaways but ending up in Burnside's pigs.

From pigs to sheep on the wind

The Government's Animal Health Laboratory at Pirbright, Surrey told Mr Waugh that his pigs had been carrying the virus for 12 days. This would put the date of their infection at 12 February.

According to the Maff chronology, on 13 February, diseased sheep from Ponteland, five miles from Burnside, went to Hexham market where they mixed with other sheep and from there to Longtown market, where they mixed with others, thus spawning the epidemic. This would mean that Mr Waugh's pigs, which were kept inside farm buildings, had infected the Ponteland sheep within 24 hours of catching the virus. Ponteland is north-east of Heddon. The weather forecast for 12 February shows the wind was a north- westerly. So, if the pigs did infect the sheep that day in a wind-borne plume of vapour as Maff has suggested, the virus must have travelled against the wind.

More holes in the pig theory

Mr Waugh's pigs arrived at the Essex abattoir on 15 February. They were checked and killed on 16 February. In-between, they were in close proximity to the pigs from Buckinghamshire and the Isle of Wight. Those pigs picked up foot-and-mouth in that short, less than 24-hour, period. Soon they were displaying the symptoms of foot-and -mouth - enough to alarm a vet who ordered a check of all the farms that supplied the slaughterhouse. Yet, according to the Maff chronology, Mr Waugh's pigs had been harbouring the disease for some time without displaying symptoms (the same abattoir vet who discovered foot- and-mouth in the Buckinghamshire and Isle of Wight porkers had previously cleared the Burnside pigs). Go figure.

Sheep tales

According to Maff, the disease spread nationally and rapidly this time - as opposed to the last major outbreak in 1967, when it was more or less confined to one area - because a network of sheep dealers carried the virus up and down the highways and by-ways.

Doubtless, dealers were responsible for its spread, but what if the disease was present in sheep before it reached Mr Waugh's pigs? Farmers in Dumfries and Galloway in January were noticing a high incidence of ewes aborting their lambs - one of the classic symptoms of foot-and-mouth in sheep. Otherwise, sheep can hide the signs of infection (unlike cattle and pigs). One other visible symptom in sheep is blistering feet, but in the wettest winter on record, with a greater prevalence of foot rot than normal, spotting the more sinister complaint may have been difficult.

Thank goodness for Stuart Renton

Ever since the outbreak started, all official comment has been tightly restricted to Government ministers, ministry press officers and Professor David King, Maff's chief scientist. Last weekend, Dr Stuart Renton, a ministry vet in Newcastle, broke ranks to say that he and his colleagues had come across old foot-and-mouth sores indicating the disease was present in sheep before the official Heddon kick -off.

"Long-standing foot-and-mouth lesions are being found in sheep nationally, indicating the disease was probably present before the initial outbreak in Heddon," said Dr Renton. "We are still getting pockets of infection in sheep which we cannot trace back to Heddon."

Following Dr Renton's remarks, Maff shifted its stance - again. Not only was Chinese food off the blame menu, but a ministry spokeswoman claimed it had never said the epidemic started at Mr Waugh's. "We only said it was the likely source and were not pointing fingers."

Mr Waugh is the subject of an exhaustive, intensive police inquiry

There have been repeated claims that Mr Waugh is the subject of a major police investigation. So far, he ain't. He has seen the police - but only to discuss improving his security against animal rights campaigners.

It was all a terrible surprise

In early February, officials contacted a timber merchant in Stafford inquiring about the availability of railway sleepers for funeral pyres for foot-and-mouth infected carcasses. The last time Maff asked about sleepers was in 1967 during the last major outbreak.

When challenged about this in the Commons, Nick Brown said the business of "purchases" of sleepers was a "red herring". Curiously, Mr Brown had changed "inquiries" to "purchases". Nobody said sleepers had been bought, merely that Maff asked if they were available for sale.

Other reports have claimed Maff was trying to source straw, bottles for disinfectant, even waterproof trousers before the outbreak. Hotels in the north are alleged to have received advance block-bookings for Maff officials. While Mr Brown has been contemptuous of these reports, dismissing them as "urban myths", his officials have tried to explain them away as "contingency planning". This explanation has provoked wry smiles in farming quarters because there was absolutely no evidence of Maff having a plan when the crisis struck. Despite a detailed report into the 1967 epidemic and the lessons to be learned, Maff gave the impression of making up its 2001 response on the hoof.

Get insured

In January this year, Maff warned farmers to take out higher insurance to protect their businesses against outbreaks of diseases. Despite no major occurrence in Britain since 1967, oddly foot and mouth was the first mentioned disease.

Animal rights scored a big one

It goes like this: a government laboratory at Pirbright or Porton Down (depending on who you talk to) was broken into and a phial of virus stolen. This was then fed to Bobby's pigs. While animal rights campaigners, notably the "militant vegans", have been triumphalist in heralding the likelihood that Britain will have to take a whole new approach to farming once this outbreak is over, nobody is claiming they did it and nobody is applauding the slaughter of millions of innocent animals. Oh, and Saddam Hussein did it or Colonel Gadaffi in revenge for the Lockerbie trial. Yeah, yeah...

Crooked farmers are responsible for the spread

Maff officials have changed their stance during the outbreak from one of total sympathy for farmers to hints dropped here and there that some of their number have been deliberately infecting sheep to get compensation, moving them from farm to farm under cover of darkness. The Army has also weighed in on this one, maintaining without naming names (as usual) this has been occurring. If so, it is only a small minority. Most farmers have been too shell-shocked, too aware of the risks, to indulge in such practices.

Meacher knows more than he is letting on

So where did it begin? In sheep before pigs, but how? Nobody knows. Or to rephrase that, those who might know are not saying. Last weekend, stories appeared that infected meat from a nearby Army training camp had gone into Mr Waugh's pigswill. This was pooh-poohed by the Ministry of Defence, sending investigators back to zero. The reality is, we may never know how it started.

When Michael Meacher, the Environment minister, called for a wholesale inquiry once the crisis had passed, he was roundly sat upon by Downing Street. Only a full inquiry would get to the bottom of what has occurred. That is not now likely to happen. Instead, Maff officials are going to present accounts of how it started, and how it was brilliantly contained, to the Government. Will they tell the full story? Will they tell the truth? Will they explain the many inconsistencies? Do pigs - Bobby Waugh's included - fly?


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