Maff 'masks' true foot and mouth tally

Maff 'masks' true foot and mouth tally

May 13, 2001 Sunday London Times by Jon Ungoed-Thomas
NEW foot and mouth outbreaks are being excluded from the official figures, masking the threat that the disease still poses, it was alleged last week.

Farmers claim the figures have been deliberately driven down by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) to divert attention during the election. In one case infections at two farms were counted as one outbreak while other outbreaks have been ignored by officials.

Vets say instances that would have been included immediately in the confirmed cases list at the start of the outbreak are now excluded. "I think there is a political element in this," said Andrew Scott, president-elect of the British Veterinary Association. "It seems strange to me that in one case I am aware of sheep had the disease, but it was not counted as an outbreak. It's causing a tremendous hue and cry among the farmers."

The new cases are now as few as two a day. Vets, however, say the figures are unreliable because Maff has changed the criteria for a case to be counted as confirmed. Previously, when livestock were slaughtered on suspicion of having the disease, the case was listed as a confirmed outbreak. This practice has now stopped, automatically reducing the number by more than a third.

Another tactic by Maff civil servants is counting two adjacent outbreaks as one. "Mr Blair has got to show it's under control and this is one way of keeping the figures down," said David Jones, group secretary of the National Farmers' Union in west Cumbria.

Officials have also refused to put some outbreaks on the list. At Brooklyn Farm, Great Wigborough, Essex, more than 1,600 sheep and 112 pigs were culled two weeks ago after tests revealed infection. Yet Maff refused to confirm the case, claiming there was no sign the disease was still present.

"They are massaging the figures down," said Chris Barker, a vet who worked for Maff for six weeks in Cumbria. "They are in danger of creating an environment where farmers think they can start to relax. In this area it's not yet over."

Maff denied it had changed the way it analysed the figures. "There is no doubt the disease is now in decline but figures have not been massaged," said a spokesman.

The number of new cases has risen to 1,583. Eight were confirmed on Friday, including one in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. The estimated compensation has risen to 653m, treble Maff's original 200m figure.

Maff also faces a backlash over the number of farms where livestock were slaughtered but are now known to have been disease-free. Last week's Maff figures show about 450 of the 1,579 so-called confirmed ca-ses returned negative results in subsequent laboratory tests.This means the figures used to show the spread of the disease are unreliable, and confirms claims that models used to control the epidemic were flawed because they overestimated the likely number of cases.

The number of negative tests has encouraged farmers who are refusing to allow culls. A proposed cull of 14 goats and three sheep at Mossburn animal sanctuary near Lockerbie, Dumfries, was postponed on Friday after court action by the owner.

Nick Brown, the agriculture minister, is worried by the legal challenges against vets' decisions to cull. He has urged more informal talks to ensure the epidemic is kept under control. "We cannot afford to let our guard drop," he said.

The threat of new outbreaks particularly worries people in Northumberland anxious about the survival of the Chillingham wild cattle, as the nearest outbreak is only four miles away.

"We have been told they will be treated as a special case should the disease get closer," said Philip Deakin, president of the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association. The cattle have been enclosed at Chillingham Castle since the 13th century and are thought to be descended from prehistoric herds.

It emerged last week that liquid waste from slaughtered animals is being dumped in the Irish Sea from two burial sites in Cumbria and Scotland. It is being treated first to remove contaminants.

Maff yesterday announced proposals for a licensing scheme from June 1 to control the movement of sheep shearers from infected to disease-free areas. Maff said the shearing season presents a "significant risk" of spreading the virus.

Perc Adams, 84, was yesterday opposing Maff officials who want to cull 22 sheep and two goats at his smallholding near Okehampton, in Devon. Union officials said it was seven weeks since the last outbreak and the cull was "utterly bonkers".

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