Foot-and-mouth epidemic set to dominate EU farm ministers meeting

April 8, 2001 Agence France Presse by Allen Nacheman

Although not on the agenda, Europe's spreading foot-and-mouth epidemic appeared likely to hog center stage as EU farm ministers headed for Sweden's snowy north Sunday for an informal three-day meeting.

The ministers, looking forward to a relaxed agenda that included skiing, snow-mobiling and dog-sledding, were also to consider reforms in the EU's Common Agriculture Policy (CAP).

Ecologists blame the intensive farming methods that CAP encourages for the foot-and-mouth and mad cow disease crises devastating EU farm markets.

Swedish Agriculture Minister Margareta Winberg, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency, has said she also intends to vet ways of making the EU's food chain safer in the wake of the devastating mad cow and foot-and-mouth outbreaks.

Host of the meeting and also a resident of this isolated town of 60,000, got a taste of things to come Saturday when she found herself caught up in an ecological demonstration in front of the town's only McDonald's.

Out shopping, she found herself in the middle of about 50 demonstrators in front of a the fast foot restaurant, Swedish television reported.

The demonstrators, led by French activist Jose Bove, were protesting the CAP, intensive farming and globalization.

Winberg, according to the TV report, engaged the demonstrators in friendly debate and said she agreed with many of their points, particularly on the need for less intensive and more ecological farming.

The farm ministers were also to take a close look at the controversial question of mass vaccination to stem the foot-and-mouth epidemic, a move the EU is currently dead set against, seeing the cons as out-weighing the pros.

The European Commission, on the advice of its Standing Veterinary Committtee (SVC), has approved tightly limited vaccination in Britain and the Netherlands to build "fire-walls" around infected sites to prevent spreading.

But, as Health and Consumer Safety Commissioner David Byrne, told European Parliament last week, mass vaccination would be "a lottery," costly, complicated and with no guarantee of success.

Some 300 million animals would have to be vaccinated every six months against the seven known strains of the foot-and-mouth virus, and EU consensus was overwhelming against that, said Byrne, who was due here to give the ministers an update.

A strong argument against vaccination during an epidemic is that it is biologically impossible to distinguish between an infected animal and a vaccinated one, thus making vaccinated livestock non-exportable to key EU markets.

EU policy has been against mass vaccination since 1991, and the commission had stood firm on that. But commission sources said a re-think could be in order once the current epidemic is under control.

Dutch farm minister Laurens-Jan Brinkhorst has said he would raise the vaccination question at the meeting here.

And several European Parliament deputies, including the Greens group, have also come out for mass innoculation.

In Britain, where the outbreak started February 19 and where over 1,000 cases have been reported, there was a glimmer of hope that the end was in sight.

After a campaign of mass slaughter and destruction of cattle, sheep and pigs that could have in any way have been exposed to the 1,028 infected sites, British scientists late in the week suggested the worst could be over.

But Agriculture Minister Nick Brown, speaking in the House of Commons, warned: "This is a very serious outbreak, which is likely to have a long tail."

Although over a million head of cattle, sheep and pigs have been destroyed, or are earmarked for destruction, in Britain's eradication strategy, the country is steering clear of even the limited vaccination approved by the SVC.

The British government, overwhelmed by the number of carcasses to be disposed of, has called in the army, and is accepting scientific help wherever it can get it.

A team of 20 American veterinarians arrived on Thursday, joining a team of 105 foreign vets already there to speed up control efforts.

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