Cattle Today

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LONDON, March 15 — Britain on Thursday announced a massive pre-emptive cull of livestock exposed to foot-and-mouth disease, with 100,000 or more animals marked for destruction. “This is a policy of safety first,” Agriculture Minister Nick Brown told the House of Commons as Britain struggled to contain an epidemic that is crippling the country's rural economy and has triggered an international ban on European meat products after the highly contagious virus spread to France.

THE DRASTIC SLAUGHTER — in addition to more than 200,000 sheep, cows and pigs already killed or marked for death — came as reverberations of the nearly month-old outbreak rippled far beyond British shores.

Continental Europe, shaken by the disease's spread to France this week, worked to strengthen its internal defenses against the virus — even as the rest of the world scrambled to shut out European meat and dairy products, including those from countries that have remained disease-free.

Foot-and-mouth disease poses no threat to humans, but when it strikes countries or trade blocs that had previously been certified as free of the ailment it can have disastrous commercial consequences.

If they want to restore their disease-free status — crucial for agricultural trade — countries can find themselves faced with the necessity of destroying enormous numbers of animals.

If they resort instead to vaccination, which does not always work well, they effectively renounce their claim to a share of the lucrative export market; as long as its herds carry antibodies to the virus, the country cannot be certified as disease-free.

As the outbreak drags on, relations between Britain and the rest of Europe — and Europe and the rest of the world — were showing signs of strain. Europe is unhappy over U.S. and Canadian bans on European Union livestock, fresh meat and dairy products announced Wednesday.

The European Commission said Thursday it would not immediately take trade action against the United States and Canada, but did not rule out retaliatory steps later.


Within the EU, which has made the breaking down of borders and barriers its raison d'etre, customs posts were being reactivated.

Along the Belgium-French border, Belgium set up checkpoints to stop the entry of French livestock. The German states bordering France agreed Thursday to check all arriving commercial traffic.

However, a top German minister was pessimistic about the country's chance of stopping the virus. “The chances are much higher now because it's clear the disease has arrived on mainland Europe. We have to get ready,” Baerbel Hoehn, environment minister in the big western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, told the Rheinische Post newspaper.

Portugal on Thursday urged a European Union-wide ban on livestock movement. The tiny Faeroe Islands, a Danish dependency in the North Atlantic, banned French meat, as did Austria.

In Britain, authorities faced a dilemma: to ease restrictions, or make them even more severe. They decided to do both.

With farmers in unaffected parts of the country clamoring for relief from tight curbs on animal movement, Brown, the agriculture minister, held out hope that restrictions could be relaxed within 10 days.

But at the same time, he announced the most far-reaching slaughter yet, involving animals showing no signs of illness but believed to have had potential contact with the virus. The prime minister's office estimated Wednesday that could be around 100,000.

All livestock within two miles of confirmed outbreaks in the northeastern county of Cumbria will be destroyed, Brown told the House of Commons. Sheep which may have been exposed to the disease at three markets will also be destroyed.

“We are intensifying the slaughter of animals at risk in the areas of the country — thankfully still limited — where the disease has spread,” Brown said. “This is a policy of safety first.”


With at least 240 separate outbreaks now reported, farmers have acknowledged the grim necessity of mass slaughter. Even so, the latest measures are a blow.

Ben Gill, president of the National Farmers Union, said the size of the killing zones would mean many healthy animals would die.

“There will be many tears around the British countryside today,” he said. Our farms should be starting to jump to life with newborn lambs and calves. Instead, many will feel that spring has been canceled, and their farms are simply dead.”

Foot-and-mouth is a severe, highly contagious viral disease that affects cloven-hooved animals, including cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and deer. The disease is characterized in animals by fever and blister-like lesions on the tongue and lips, in the mouth, on the teats, and between the claws. The virus can kill young animals as it causes inflammation of the heart muscle walls although many animals survive. But the disease leaves them debilitated, causing severe losses in the production of meat and milk. There is no effective treatment for the disease.

Because foot-and-mouth can spread widely and rapidly and because it has grave economic as well as physical consequences, it is one of the animal diseases that livestock owners dread most. People can be infected through skin wounds or through inhalation while handling diseased stock, the virus in the laboratory, or by drinking infected milk, but not by eating meat from infected animals. The human infection is temporary and mild and is not considered a public health problem. Foot-and-mouth is caused by a very resilient virus that can survive in carcasses, animal byproducts, water, straw and bedding, and pastures. It can be spread by animals, people, or materials that bring the virus into physical contact with susceptible animals.Among the ways it can spread is through people wearing contaminated clothes or footwear or using contaminated equipment, or when animals carrying the virus are introduced into susceptible herds. The disease is very difficult to control. When there is an outbreak, the area is quarantined, after which all infected or susceptible animals are slaughtered and their carcasses burned. Other contaminated objects are cleaned and disinfected, and the farm or other quarantined area is left uninhabited for several months.

However, the virus can spread quickly because the incubation period can last for up to 21 days, meaning farmers may unknowingly ship animals to markets, other regions or slaughterhouses before it is detected. The disease is widespread and various forms have been identified in Africa, South America, Asia, and Europe. North America, Central America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Chile are considered virus free because governments have conducted effective programs to prevent its introduction or to eradicate it.

The last outbreak was reported in the United States in 1929, Canada in 1952 and Mexico in 1954. The world's fourth-largest beef-producing nation on March 13 confirmed at least one case of foot-and-mouth disease in a remote part of Buenos Aires province, a popular cattle grazing area in the Pampas region, some 250 miles northwest of Buenos Aires. The largest beef exporter in the world banned meat imports from Europe and Argentina and further tightened airport quarantine controls on travelers from those regions. Separately, they reported a sharp jump in demand for kangaroo meat in Europe as consumers avoided traditional meat sources because of fears about foot and mouth and mad cow disease. The current outbreak began in early February and was first detected by veterinarians on Feb. 19 among pigs near an abattoir in Brentwood, Essex County, northeast of London. The virus forced the British government to order the slaughter of thousands of animals as well as to impose draconian restrictions on activity in the countryside. Hiking was banned and many sporting events canceled, while farmers were unable to buy or sell livestock.

More than 200 cases have since been detected in Britain and one case in Northern Ireland. The worst outbreak of foot-and-mouth occurred in Britain in 1967, when the government was forced to cull around 500,000 sheep, pigs and cows. Despite a ban on the import of livestock from Britain and Northern Ireland, the government disclosed that the disease was detected March 13 in a herd of sheep on a farm in the northwestern Mayenne region. The confirmation sparked fears that the disease could spread across mainland Europe.

Agriculture Minister Jean Glavany said that France is "very exposed to risk" of more foot-and-mouth cases because of the 20,000 British sheep it imported in February that were scattered in 80 farms around the country. The proximity of the outbreak in Northern Ireland has forced the Dublin government to clamp down on many activities in rural areas while boosting security along the border to prevent people or livestock from carrying the disease. The USDA expanded a ban on imports of livestock and fresh meat to all 15 countries of the European Union on March 13. The ban, which also applies to unpasteurized dairy products, would have the biggest impact on imports of pork from the Netherlands and Denmark. Imports of beef from the European Union already were banned because of mad cow disease.

The United States suspended all meat and animal imports from Britain on Feb. 21 and ordered stepped-up checks of travelers arriving from the United Kingdom. Airline passengers who have visited the British countryside are required to have their shoes disinfected if they appear soiled and these restrictions have not been extended to visitors from all EU countries.

Canada took the same restrictive measures adopted by the United States after foot-and-mouth was discovered in France and Argentina on March 13. Although the disease has only been detected in two member states, all 15 countries have been affected by the blockade imposed by 90 trading partners, which the EU described as "excessive."

The EU has ban the trade of British or French livestock or animal products to other member states.


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