World

UP IN SMOKE

Barry Came March 12 2001
World

UP IN SMOKE

Barry Came March 12 2001

UP IN SMOKE

World

Barry Came

In west Devon, the snowdrops are in bloom, tiny pinpoints of white in fields of rolling green. They herald the coming of spring, in normal times as sure a sign of the changing season as the sudden appearance of countless frolicking lambs. But the times are not normal in this verdant corner of southwestern England, a principal seat of Britain’s livestock industry. There are no lambs in Devon’s green fields this year, and there is no joy among the farmers who raise them. “We’re terrified, at our wits’ end,” admitted Ian Johnson, a local representative of the British National Farmers’ Union. “If this disease really gets out of control, we could be on the threshold of Armageddon. Were talking about a threat to two million cattle, a million pigs and four million sheep in western England alone.”

Foot-and-mouth is the disease in question and, by late last week, many of the signs indicated that it was, indeed, ready to spiral out of control. The ferociously contagious virus, rec-

ognized by the blistering it provokes around the feet and mouths of cloven-hoofed animals, had spread from a single pig farm in Northumberland in northeastern England right across the United Kingdom, infecting not only English cattle, pigs and sheep but herds in Wales, Scodand and Northern Ireland as well. In an effort to contain the outbreaks, more than 40,000 animals were destroyed, their carcasses incinerated in huge bonfires that, like grim funeral pyres, nightly lit the skies of rural Britain. More than 100 British farms were quarantined, sealed behind locked gates and straw barricades soaked in disinfectant. A total ban on farm animal movement was imposed in the hope of curbing a disease so contagious that it can spread on a gust of wind. Nature parks and zoos were closed, horse racing cancelled, dog shows postponed, military exercises called off, rugby games scrubbed. There were even rumours that British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labour government will be forced to rethink plans to call

general elections this spring.

The United Kingdoms European neighbours, already reeling from the devastating impact of mad-cow disease that originated in Britain, moved quickly to keep foot-and-mouth at bay. The European Commission, executive arm of the 15-member European Union, immediately slapped a ban on all British meat imports until March 9, with provisions to extend the restriction if necessary. In France, the authorities slaughtered 20,000 sheep, which were either directly imported from Britain in recent days or may have come in contact with the British imports. For similar reasons, the Dutch destroyed 3,400 animals, the Germans 1,500 and the Belgians 1,000 (late last week, however, there were fears that footand-mouth had spread to a Belgian pig farm). The Irish government mobilized its army, deploying troops along the border with Northern Ireland after it was discovered that a herd of British sheep had been smuggled illegally across the border I and slaughtered in an abattoir in I the Republic. Ireland even can! celled St. Patricks Day celebráis tions. And all of these measures ■kMr**» '• ** % were implemented with much grumbling about British agricultural practices.

Given the early state of the foot-and-mouth outbreak, first detected at a slaughterhouse in Essex on Feb. 19, government officials on both sides of the English Channel are still calculating the costs. But the economic impact is likely to be enormous. In the short term, Blair’s government has pledged a $380-million compensation package for farmers direcdy affected by the disease. But economists at the National Farmers’ Union estimate the British economy could suffer as much as $1.8 billion in lost output. According to union figures, the organization’s members are already out more than $100 million a week in lost sales as a result of the ban on livestock movement in the country. The timing of the current near-epidemic has not helped, coming at the very moment when British agriculture was beginning to recover from the aftermath of the mad-cow crisis, when farm incomes fell by two-thirds. “This could be the final nail in the coffin of the livestock industry,” speculated Danny Gabay, an economist with the London office of J. P. Morgan Chase & Co. investment bankers. “It’s hard to imagine what

would induce Europeans to buy British products again.”

Certainly, Britain’s partners in the EU are suffering as a result of current fears over mad-cow disease, technically known as BSE, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy. In Germany, beef consumption has fallen by 80 per cent since the first cases of BSE were discovered in German cattle late last year. Elsewhere in Europe, the declines have been less dramatic, but they are still in the neighbourhood of 40 per cent in France. In an attempt to support hard-pressed cattle farmers as well as reassure wary beef consumers, the European Commission has embarked on a program to purchase and destroy cattle older than 30 months unless they have tested BSE-negative. More than $202 million has been committed to pay up to 70 per cent of the cost of slaughtering animals. Any spread of foot-and-mouth disease to the Continent now would be grave, likely to exacerbate the market collapse already under way due to BSE fears.

‘This could be the final nail in the coffin of the livestock industry’

Unlike BSE, foot-and-mouth is not harmful to humans. There is no equivalent to the frightening human counterpart of BSE, the incurable Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. It kills by turning the brain into a sponge-like mass, and one variant of it has been strongly linked to BSE. In most cases, foot-and-mouth does not even kill its cloven-hoofed adult victims. In addition to the blisters, infected animals develop high fever, excessive salivation and sudden lameness, and lose their appetites. Once they recover, however, they no longer possess anything approaching their original market value, which is the principal reason why mass slaughter rather than vaccination is the preferred method—in Britain and elsewhere—for controlling the disease. “If we vaccinated,” said a British ministry of agriculture spokeswoman, “it would be two years after the last vaccination that Britain could be declared free of the disease.”

Whatever the merits of that argument, it does not offer much solace to people like Willy Cleave. A 44-year-old Devon farmer and sheep dealer, Cleave is arguably the single greatest victim of the current outbreak of foot-and-mouth in Britain. Fie is one of the country’s busiest sheep traders, owning or renting 11 different farms in Devon and two more in neighbouring Cornwall. Cleave’s property, Burdon Farm near the village of Highampton, was the first site in Devon where the disease was detected last week. A day later, it was confirmed at a second of Cleave’s farms near Hatherleigh, three kilometres down the road from Highampton.

It was not long before the men from the ministry of agri-

A total ban on farm animal movement was imposed in hopes of curbing a disease so contagious that it can spread on a gust of wind

culture began to show up at all of Cleave’s farms, arriving with the truckloads of railway ties and coal that are used to incinerate destroyed animals. “This man’s business was as a sheep dealer and there have been a lot of movements of animals between his farms,” explained William Bennett, an agriculture ministry veterinary manager in Devon. “Because of this and the close connection between all his farms in Devon, we will slaughter all his stock.” In a single day last week, Cleave watched his life’s work go up in smoke, a total of 1,700 animals. As the fire at Burdon Farm glowed in the evening sky over Highampton, Cleave remained out of sight and incommunicado. Neighbours, however, reported that he was “inconsolable.”

It might be easy to understand Cleave’s plight, even sympathize. But the nature of his business helps to explain why this latest epidemic of foot-and-mouth in Britain, the first in more than 30 years, spread so quickly and so far.

Cleave’s woes began when he purchased 40 sheep at the Hexham livestock market in Northumberland in northern England. Those sheep were almost certainly incubating foot-and-mouth that they had picked up, probably on the wind, while penned on a farm close to a pig farm in Heddon-on-the-Wall in Northumberland, now regarded by British government veterinarians as the initial source of the disease. Cleave’s infected animals were shipped to one or more of his farms in Devon, where they infected other animals in Cleave’s herds, which in turn infected other

herds as they were sent to abattoirs around Great Britain, or abroad to Germany.

Precisely how the pigs at Burnside Farm at Heddon-on-theWall contracted the disease is more problematic. But the British authorities suspect the virus may have been contained in the swill that the farm’s owners, brothers Ronald and Robert Waugh, fed to their 500 pigs. In a series of interviews last week, Robert Waugh, 55, claimed that the slops he used to make his swill were collected from local schools. “My pigs weren’t fed anything that hadn’t already been served up on bairns’ plates,” he asserted. “It is food that has come straight off the dinner plates, the stuff the kids didn’t eat.”

Last week, British agriculture ministry investigators were still engaged in identifying the exact contents of the Waughs’ swill. But if the brothers’ claims are correct, then it is likely that the pigs at Burnside Farm were being fed the recycled remains of animals, perhaps their own species. That is precisely the same problem that is widely believed to lie at the root of the current BSE crisis, where the lethal malady is thought to have been spread by meat and bone meal manufactured from animal wastes, especially brain and spinal chord. That raises a host of doubts about modern agricultural methods in general. But some in Britain are posing a more pointed question. “Why does British farming keep churning up crises like these?” asked Thames Valley University professor Timothy Lang. Why indeed. CD