German newspaper condemns British ministry's handling of foot-and-mouth crisis

April 6, 2001 BBC Worldwide Monitoring

A German newspaper has criticized British Agriculture Minister Nick Brown for his handling of the foot-and-mouth outbreak, but reserves its bile for the ministry he heads. "The ministry which got Europe into the BSE mess, whose notoriously reticent dealing with the truth is on record, which time and again has impeded inconvenient scientists, transformed a serious agricultural problem into a catastrophe," the paper says. The paper also says that the damage done to the rural economy by the ministry's actions is out of all proportion to the threat to the market they were designed to protect. The following is the text of an article by Juergen Kroenig entitled "Mr Foot-and-Mouth Disease", published by the German newspaper Die Zeit on 5 April:

London: The virus had suddenly transformed a wallflower of British politics into a global TV star. Nick Brown, stocky, as charismatic as a grey mouse, cannot be overlooked at the forefront of the battle against the epidemic; sometimes the British agriculture minister stomps through the killing fields which his ministry's death commandos have created; then, politely and almost without emotion, he justifies himself to Parliament, poses worthily before microphones and cameras, or flies to crisis meetings in Brussels. The foot-and-mouth epidemic has presented the 50-year-old with an unaccustomed experience of success: until then only known as Mr Gloom, the gloomy-looking handler of mad cow disease, suddenly applause was pouring down on him - for the quick, tough decision to stem the virus through mass killings.

The longer the crisis lasts, the more clearly Nick Brown's martial determination reveals itself as a disastrous rush job. The mountains of cadavers are growing because veterinarians and soldiers cannot keep up with removal and transport. The killing columns are growing tired. Hardened soldiers at times react to the state-ordered bloodbath with fits of crying: perforce regulations are ignored which prohibit killing animals in front of their fellow creatures. The misery of the creatures, the despair of the farmers over the loss of rare species cause deep uneasiness in the urbanized majority of society. But the virus is spreading further, grips mountains and high moor landscapes, and at the beginning of the week leaps to a zoo in Bristol. The slaughter empties landscapes of animals - and of tourists. Nick Brown's ministry, called MAFF for short, glosses over the situation, massages statistics, presents imprecise data - on new cases of foot-and-mouth disease, the number of sheep and cattle waiting for the tranquilizer bolt shots, the cadavers which still must be removed. The ministry also suppresses the fact that there exists no law that forces the killing of healthy animals. When farmers refuse, they are pressured with threats. The minister, who presides over all of this, now stands in the crossfire of massive criticism. And his boss is "mad as hell and staggered" by the Agriculture Ministry, says an adviser to the prime minister. Tony Blair, who had to postpone local and probably also parliamentary elections to 7 June, has declared foot-and-mouth disease an executive matter of paramount importance . Which does not promise much good for the career of upright Nick Brown, who struggled hard to be a good agriculture minister.

He had not liked assuming the job. In Westminster, MAFF is known as the "Siberia" of British politics. Few of those banished there escape to greener fields, and for most of them the ministry becomes the terminal point. Fifty-year-old Brown also considered his transfer there a setback. Almost three years ago, the prime minister had palmed him off there. Blair no longer wanted to tolerate a proven follower of his rival and chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, in the post of chief whip of the Labour group in the House of Commons. Nick Brown, not exactly known for originality and surprising flashes of genius, as a mover and shaker behind the scenes, had proven his talent in the lowly art of every-day political and personnel management.

In the Agriculture Ministry, the last bastion of a centrally controlled and highly subsidized state capitalism, the new chief was received with a mocking smile. The bureaucrats knew very well that they would have an easy time of it with the clueless townie who immediately and eagerly tried to cover up his urban nature; whenever there was a chance, Nick Brown sported spic-and-span Wellingtons, to the great amusement of the farmers. His image in rural circles was not exactly enhanced when a tabloid had revealed him as being homosexual. Until then, Brown had been seen as sociable, but also as unapproachable and extremely discreet.

The Media Democracy Shouts for Action

Brown will enter into the history of British agriculture, rich in calamities, as the man who gave the signal for the greatest mass destruction of healthy animals since the extirpation of North American buffaloes. But actually, he has not deserved even this dubious fame. Ultimately, Brown is only an implementing body, a ministerial puppet dangling on the strings of officials and experts. The breathless action to which the minister succumbed is certainly also a result of the media democracy; there hardly remains time to consider, to see the overall picture, when on the first day of the epidemic a clear statement was demanded for the evening news. Weighing and considering are easily seen as weaknesses, while the rapid execution of even miserable crisis concepts is - at least initially - praised as "good politics".

The real problem is the experts whose advice Nick Brown follows. Highly specialized, ideologically fixated on "extermination" of diseases instead of curing and prevention, embracing "large", centralized solutions, they often serve several masters. Agriculture ministries, not only on the British isles, are symbiotically linked to industry and have internalized their interests. At the same time, agricultural bureaucracies are far removed from local realities on-site; their regulations often lack common sense.

Upon the outbreak of the epidemic, the apparatus presented only one recipe to the minister: slaughter, burning, eradicating the virus at whatever price, in order to preserve the status of being free of foot-and-mouth disease and secure export markets. The scientific justification is dubious, incomplete and outdated, say independent experts such as Gareth Davies, until 1994 epidemiologist at the EU Commission. At the beginning of the week, in a meeting at 10 Downing Street, Davies and other experts, among them Harvard Professor Fred Brown, advised the prime minister to change course and adopt an inoculation strategy. Nick Brown had not been invited; his chief veterinarian sat there, silent.

He and others had never recommended alternatives to the minister, such as mass inoculation, and new research results had been held back. Instead, the ministry embarked on a campaign which borders on deliberate deception and pushed Brown into giving false statements, even to the House of Commons. He went so far as to say that export markets would be "permanently lost" through inoculation. Based on the advice of his advisers, but simply wrong, of course. It should not stay there: mass inoculation is neither planned in the EU nor effective, for inoculated animals have to be slaughtered anyway soon thereafter. In truth, however, EU directives permit inoculation, exports are possible 13 months after the last case of foot-and-mouth disease or the last inoculation; meat products are permitted to be exported even from a foot-and-mouth disease country, as long as - see the example of Argentina - they come from herds free of the disease. Furthermore, meat and milk can safely be consumed, and sick animals recuperate quickly. Old farmers today stare disconcertedly at the killing orgies. Only a few years ago, it was usual to let infected animals simply live through the epidemic.

But now the pyres spew highly toxic dioxin over Britain's countryside; some animal mass graves are beginning to infect the groundwater. The report on the 1967 epidemic reveals the point where in some places, the virus had been spread by the smoke. Was Nick Brown familiar with this report? Had his veterinarians informed him of it? Hardly probable. His ministry wasted no thought on the economic and political consequences of its epidemic strategy. British exports of meat products are worth a paltry 300m pounds. The costs of mass killing are already three times as high.

The larger picture, which Brown ignored completely, is gloomy. Great Britain's image as an investment and tourism country has suffered badly; tens of thousands of small businesses, shops, pubs, hotels, suppliers, retailers, shops and breweries face hard times, even bankruptcy. The ministry which got Europe into the BSE mess, whose notoriously reticent dealing with the truth is on record, which time and again has impeded inconvenient scientists, transformed a serious agricultural problem into a catastrophe. It is little consolation for Nick Brown that it is the 'mad officials' who are at fault.

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