by Samanta Sen
(IPS) LONDON --
practices that fly in the face of nature led to spread of the foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) and now these same pressures are standing in the way of containing it, scientists warn.
The British government's policies have seen the number of abattoirs dwindle from 1,400 to just 400 over the past 10 years. More are closing down. This resulted in overcrowding of animals at farms and taking them long distances for slaughter -- both of which led to the spread of the highly contagious FMD.
Now the government has rejected a vaccination campaign, the option recommended by a group of leading scientists. These scientists have warned that the current policy of mass slaughter will actually lead to spread of the disease. Vaccination is being ruled out because of short-term commercial considerations, the scientists say.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Foods and Fisheries (MAFF) is going ahead with its slaughter program because "we have determined it's the best way to deal with the situation," a spokesperson for MAFF told IPS. He said that the spread of the disease "is not attributable to any man-made conditions."
That is at some variance with the views of Prime Minister Tony Blair and his advisers. Blair said at a meeting at a veterinary college to discuss the disease that for the future "we need to sit down with the industry and really work out what is the basis on which we want sustainable farming for the long term."
Blair spoke of the need to address issues such as intensified farming and marketing methods.
Lord Haskins, chairman of the company Northern Foods and an adviser to the Prime Minister, said "the practices that appear to have failed here are about traditional farming methods and feeding swill."
New rules favor large slaughterhouses working under centralized supervision. "It is impossible to exaggerate the damage to rural abattoirs of these insane rules, and difficult to exaggerate the effects of the closures on farming, on the rural economy, on meat standards and on animal suffering," says Owen Paterson, Tory opposition Member of Parliament (MP).
Several other MPs are campaigning against conditions that are now worse at several places than they were a century ago.
the farm in Northumberland in north England where the outbreak was said to have originated, inspectors were given reports that rotting carcasses of pigs had been left alongside live pigs and decaying pieces of meat were also lying around the farm. That farm was a fattening center where the final aim was to get meatier pigs for higher profits.
The Northumberland council sent in an inspection team following a complaint and the inspectors found the site filthy. The farm owners were served a notice to improve conditions, but the infection was apparently in its incubation stage by then. Inspectors returned later to find conditions improved but still not satisfactory.
"Not only do you have these unnatural conditions driven by a greed for profits, but you had infected animals being taken hundreds of miles from here to slaughter houses so the disease is spread far and wide," Paul Winfred from the Soil Association told IPS.
Now that the disease has spread into much of Britain and Europe, MAFF has declined to vaccinate livestock to contain the disease from spreading.
A report written by a leading scientist for the Elm Farm research center, the world's leading organic farming research organization, says the mass slaughter policy will actually lead to further spread of the disease.
"The infection is simply too infectious under British conditions in high-density stock-rearing areas for control by slaughter policy, especially where the authorities have proven unable to slaughter within two days," said the scientist, who researched the issue with a team of other senior scientists.
"The reported delays of three to four days from suspicion of infection to slaughter are too slow to be effective in preventing the spread of the disease beyond 3-5km and the establishment of infection in new areas," said the scientist who chose to remain anonymous.
The report says: "The UK mass cull, therefore, unless it had occurred much earlier and involving all cattle and pigs in the restricted zones would be nowhere near sufficient to prevent infection in cattle and sheep beyond the 3 km radius."
It says that "emergency vaccination is an approved form of FMD control in Europe and there is significant preparedness to mount an effective vaccine-based response, which MAFF and the EU has been funding for at least 15 years."
The report recommends vaccinations as a way to curb the spread, even if that will mean a later cull and temporary damage to export of animals from Britain, worth an estimated $600 million a year.
Advocating vaccination strongly, the report says: "It is also ethically and politically acceptable, a rational response to an exceptionally infective condition and which has a very rapid response. It could result in near 100 percent vaccination rates within five days and almost complete immunity in 10 days. A reduction of cases to zero could be expected within three weeks."
British farmers used to vaccinate their animals regularly, but stopped the practice out of cost considerations to boost the competitive value of British animals. The government has now dismissed vaccination as an option.
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