Intensive farming 'is partly to blame' for rapid spread of foot-and-mouth

May 4, 2001 Financial Times (London) by John Mason And Cathy Newman

Intensive farming methods adopted since the 1960s are partly to blame for the rapid spread of foot-and-mouth disease, the first government report on the crisis has concluded. The Cabinet Office report said the increase in sheep trading, the growth of larger farms and the closure of abattoirs contributed to the uncontrolled spread of the virus.

The report was published as Tony Blair strongly defended the government's handling of the crisis. The prime minister insisted the culling of 2m animals had been both necessary and a "remarkable" success des-pite some mistakes by staff on the ground.

"No one here would claim that all of us involved, all of us working together, have got everything right. We have been dealing with thousands of farms and millions of animals in often difficult farming country. From time to time there have been culls in the wrong place or burials not done properly," he said.

The crisis had presented the government, army, veterinary staff and others with the largest organisational task faced in peace-time. "Considering the scale of this operation it is remarkable how well they have done," Mr Blair said.

Meanwhile, in an attempt to prevent future disease outbreaks, Nick Brown, agriculture minister, announced that catering waste that contained meat would no longer be fed to animals. He also told the Commons that the government would "build on our existing controls" over meat imports. Local authorities' powers to seize suspected illegal imports would be clarified.

The Cabinet Office report pointed to two main reasons why the epidemic had been worse than the 1967 outbreak.

First, no one spotted the first case of the disease - at a pig farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall in Northumberland - allowing the disease to spread for three weeks before it was discovered. In this period, 2m sheep were moved around the country infecting other animals.

Second, changes in farming practices meant the virus could travel further and faster than in 1967.

Changes which helped the disease to spread included:

* Dramatic increases in the size of farms and stock numbers

* An extension of the lamb production "season" that now runs from December to June.

* Increased sheep movements, particularly by road.

* The closure of local abattoirs and markets following European Union regulations and pressure from supermarket chains.

The prime minister said the epidemic was now under control and receding. However, complacency could lead to an upsurge in fresh cases over future months.

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