Dutch Farmers Facing Mass Foot-and-Mouth Slaughter

April 6, 2001 The New York Times by Edmund L. Andrews&

Jan Willem Horstmann spent the last 18 years grooming a line of breeding sheep that he sold to farmers for up to $2,000 a head. Today, he made preparations to slaughter them all.

"Eighteen years of work, and it's over," he said. "It's a bad day."

Mr. Horstmann and most other farmers around here have been trapped by the contagion of foot-and-mouth disease, which swept through Britain last month and has now contaminated the Netherlands.

About 45 miles east, in Ochtrup, Germany, Heinz Hewing is waiting in dread. Germany has yet to document an outbreak of foot-and-mouth. But Mr. Hebring and most other German farmers near the border have placed their barns and themselves under a limited quarantine.

"You almost have to count on it coming," said Mr. Hewing, whose small family farm dates from the 13th century. "I don't want it to come, of course. But it is so hard to avoid."

Such is the nature of epidemics in the European Union today, as borders between countries have all but dissolved. It has been years since anybody needed a passport to travel between most countries in Western Europe or since countries tried to restrict cross-border truck traffic.

Now Europeans are desperately trying seal their frontiers to a virus that is devastating to livestock and spreads with frightening speed. They are also in a pitched battle over how to respond. Countries like the Netherlands are pushing for vaccination. Countries that are less exposed want to continue relying on preventive slaughter.

Foot-and-mouth disease can spread by the mud on a person's boots, the meat or milk from contaminated cattle or simply the wind that turns windmills on both sides of the Dutch-German border.

Having devastated livestock in Britain since it appeared there in late February, the disease skipped like a stone over water. It infected just a handful of animals in France, but settled in with a vengeance here. The United States has imposed a ban on imports of European meat.

The question now is whether farmers can stop the virus from spreading further. Besides the lack of internal borders, European farms are often tiny properties nestled back to back in densely populated areas. They are also linked by some of the best rail and highway systems and trade heavily around the continent.

In the last few days, Dutch officials have cordoned off a swath of territory that covers 1,500 small farms and 115,000 animals. Today, they began a slaughter of at least half, and perhaps all, of those animals.

"My own opinion is that they will have to slaughter them all," said Jos Roemaat, a farmer and the general manager of the regional agricultural association.

People have begun living under a de facto quarantine, part of which has been imposed by the government and part of which people have imposed on themselves.

Here in Olst, the police have blocked roads to most farms as well as some residential neighborhoods on the farms' periphery. Though people can enter and leave, they cannot accept visitors, and most farmers stay at home for fear of spreading the virus.

At an elementary school here, de Holsthoek, some children have been kept at home and some have been unable to travel to school because of blocked roads. Those who do attend have to step over a disinfecting mat before entering, and parents are not allowed in at all.

"The fewer contacts, the less danger there is of contamination," said the principal, Mies Karrembeld. "It is really like being in East Germany."

Although Dutch farmers deal with the grim certainty of contamination, the German farmers a few miles east are in a state of near panic with foreboding. In Steinfurt, a one-hour drive from Olst, Alfonz Berning found on Monday night that a number of his young pigs were sick with what looked suspiciously like foot-and-mouth disease. County officials in Steinfurt quickly destroyed all the farm's 95 piglets but initially tried to keep things quiet -- "to avoid hysteria," according to Thomas Kubendorff, head of the county council.

But word leaked out quickly, and hysteria spread faster than the virus. By Tuesday afternoon, the entry to Mr. Berning's tiny farm was barricaded by police cars, and television crews were circling in helicopters overhead. On Wednesday, preliminary tests indicated that the pigs did not have foot-and-mouth, though conclusive results will not be ready for days.

In the meantime, trucks carrying feed or produce to Mr. Berning's farm have to drive through a disinfectant spray. The Bernings are allowed to leave if they disinfect their shoes and clothes, but they try to stay home.

"You just don't know whether there might be some dust on your jacket," Mr. Berning's son Frank said. "It's like house arrest."

Germany had three other foot-and-mouth scares on Wednesday, involving sheep 50 miles north of Frankfurt. Officials immediately sealed off three small villages to outside traffic and closed schools. Once again, preliminary tests indicated that the animals were sick from something else.

In areas near the German border, farmers now need to obtain official permission before transporting livestock. Many farmers have set up special disinfection procedures and sealed off their barns.

Bernhard Bonekamp, who raises 5,000 pigs in Dulmen, Germany, 22 miles from the border, said the disease appeared to be heading south rather than east. "I think the chances we can avoid this are about 50-50," he reckoned.

Regardless of whether the virus crosses the border, European farmers face a huge policy battle over vaccination. Like the United States and Japan, the European Union has a general ban on foot-and-mouth vaccine, because vaccinated animals have the same incriminating antibodies as those that are infected. Meat from vaccinated animals cannot be exported to the United States or Japan. So the decision to vaccinate essentially prohibits exporting.

In Brussels, the European Commission remains opposed to vaccination in general. Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain came close to allowing vaccination a week ago, but backed away when new evidence suggested that the epidemic's spread in Britain was slowing.

Dutch farmers and political leaders here have come out strongly for vaccination. They have begun vaccinating in the clearly contaminated region, although they are slaughtering as well. But Dutch farmers argue that Europe should vaccinate generally and use "genetic markers" that make it easier to distinguish between the vaccine and the virus.

"The trade between countries is so much higher than it was 10 or 12 years ago," Mr. Roemaat of the farmers' group said. "The liberalization of trade has to be combined with instruments that can be used to provide protection."

A growing number of German farmers supports vaccination, but as a group the farmers are more ambivalent. Some worry about losing valuable exports. Others say the wider spaces in Germany make isolation and preventive slaughtering workable.

"Pigs are one of the few agricultural products in Germany that are not subsidized," Mr. Bonekamp said. "We have the capacity to compete in the export market."

In the absence of policy changes, Dutch farmers remain cloistered and are preparing to slaughter as fast as they can.

"I just found out that my sheep will be destroyed tomorrow morning," Mr. Horstmann said. A lean man who works as a government farm official, Mr. Horstmann raises just a few dozen sheep a year that he sells to farmers for breeding rather than for meat or wool. Males sell for as much as $2,000, about 10 times the price of regular sheep.

For practical purposes, Mr. Horstmann's prize breed is now extinct. He is not even allowed to preserve semen or eggs. "I will have to find a farmer who is willing to let me have one or two of his best sheep -- his very, very best -- and start again."

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