Major health risk as farm crisis grows: Leaked letter reveals fear over BSE carcass disposal;
Government in turmoil about vaccination U-turn; Plans to evacuate Devon village in pollution scare

April 15, 2001 The Observer by Kamal Ahmed and Anthony Brownev

A PACKAGE of emergency government measures to control the foot and mouth crisis could expose people to the risk of infection by the human form of mad cow disease, The Observer can reveal.

Under new guidelines to relax the rules governing the disposal of carcasses to be agreed this week, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has told Britain's waste industry that it must use landfill sites across the country to dispose of cattle which might be infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

Representatives of companies that operate landfill sites demanded 'unlimited indemnity' from the Government in case the infective prion which causes BSE in cattle escapes and causes human variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.

In a letter from representatives of the industry to Maff and leaked to The Observer , the companies reveal their fear that they will be liable to law suits running into billions of pounds if the source of any new outbreak of human variant CJD is traced back to them. 'It would be a public health disaster,' said one senior source in the industry.

The move reveals the increasing concern over the public health implications of burying and burning hundreds of thousands of animal carcasses. On Friday the Government abandoned a plan to burn the carcasses of thousands of cattle at Hallburn aerodrome in Cumbria after locals complained of choking smoke, and grease-laden ash covering their houses.

Maff has also now drawn up plans for a mass evacuation of 2,000 people from Holsworthy in Devon where a huge pyre is being built. Devon County Council has said that the plans should be in place in case smoke from the burning mound of carcasses smothers the village.

People living near Okehampton have been offered temporary accommodation because of the noise and destruction from the building of a huge burial pit.

The Government's Cobra task force met in emergency session yesterday and officials launched a rearguard action to stop the slaughter policy spiralling out of control. It is now likely that the Government will agree to a mass vaccination programme, a major U-turn on previous policy. Downing Street admitted last night that vaccination was a 'live issue'.

On Friday Agriculture Minister Nick Brown admitted that the Government was being overwhelmed by the number of livestock which needed to be slaughtered and then disposed of. Yesterday figures revealed that 408,000 carcasses were lying in fields waiting to be buried or burnt, and that more than 500,000 were awaiting slaughter.

William Hague, the leader of the Opposition, said that it was time for the Army to be put in operational control of the epidemic as Maff was clearly failing to cope.

The critical letter to Maff is written by Dirk Hazell, the head of the Environmental Services Association and one of Britain's leading experts on waste disposal.'We are extremely concerned at any pressure exerted on our members to receive carcasses of cattle at landfill,' it says.

'Until the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, cattle carcasses over 30 months old were being sent to prescribed outlets (high temperature incineration). We are extremely concerned as to the known resilience and potential toxicity of BSE.

'The order of magnitude in the difference between the prion and the virus is similar to that between Alzheimer's disease and athlete's foot. It was not considered safe before the outbreak to landfill carcasses of cattle aged between 30 months and 60 months and we must emphatically insist that our members must have a watertight indemnity.'

In Northern Ireland a cull of 4,000 cattle was ordered after the province suffered its second case of foot and mouth disease, six weeks after the first case. Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister, Brid Rodgers, confirmed that an emergency meeting of the Northern Ireland Executive would be held tomorrow to discuss the fresh outbreak and that the army would help in the cull. 'It goes without saying that this is a huge setback for our agriculture industry,' he said.

'The outbreak, on a farm in Ardboe, Co Tyrone, reveals that the disease can lie dormant for weeks, or that it can be carried on the wind across large distances.

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