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Foot And Mouth Disease Outbreak

Volume 622: debated on Wednesday 21 February 2001

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2.38 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to make a Statement about the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Essex. The Statement is as follows.

The Government's Chief Veterinary Officer last night confirmed the presence of foot and mouth disease in pigs in an abattoir and in cattle on a neighbouring farm near Brentwood in Essex. Emergency movement controls are already in place, prohibiting the movement of livestock in the five mile surrounding area. A wider infected area, taking account of geography and the risks of airborne spread, is being imposed.

The State Veterinary Service is urgently undertaking epidemiological tracings, to try to establish the original source of the disease, which is likely to have been brought into the abattoir during the course of last week. The premises takes pigs from all over the United Kingdom, so we cannot assume that the disease started in Essex.

Foot and mouth disease is highly virulent in pigs, cattle, sheep and other ungulates, spreading rapidly by contact between animals, transmission via people or transport, or through the air.

It is essential that farmers and all those handling animals in markets or abattoirs should be vigilant for signs of disease. These include the development of blisters in the mouth, causing considerable salivation, and, on the feet, resulting in lameness. Death is unusual but animals quickly cease to gain weight, and milk production in dairy animals falls. I am placing a detailed description of the symptoms in the Libraries of both Houses, and on the ministry's website. If they spot these symptoms, farmers and those handling animals should report them as soon as possible to their vet or to the local MAFF animal health office, from which advice can also be sought in cases of doubt. Owners must examine their animals regularly and look out for any signs of problems—time is of the essence if we are to limit the spread of this disease. When disease is suspected, the animals and other contacts are slaughtered and full compensation is paid.

We are in close touch with the European Commission and our EU partners and I anticipate that temporary controls on the export of live animals, meat, milk and other animal products from the UK, and on movements from the county of Essex, will need to come into force later today. This is normal precautionary practice for disease control purposes in outbreaks of foot and mouth disease.

Foot and mouth disease is not a public health issue. I am advised by the Department of Health that, although human infection of foot and mouth disease has been reported, cases are rare and of no health significance. The last report of human infection appears to have been in the 1960s. The Food Standards Agency has advised that there are no implications for the human food chain.

The department is putting in place emergency operational arrangements broadly following the pattern of last year's classical swine fever outbreak. We shall provide the fullest possible information to Parliament, the media and the affected communities. The Chief Veterinary Officer is establishing a regular meeting of key stakeholders.

As those who remember 1967 will know, a widespread outbreak of foot and mouth disease can be extremely serious for the whole of the farming community. MAFF, working closely with the devolved administrations and local authorities, is taking every step it can to control the disease and to minimise the damage and disruption it can cause.

2.41 p.m.

My Lords, I am shocked at the awful news given by the noble Baroness the Leader of the House. The one thing that our friend would have said is that the show must go on.

I thank the Minister for reading the Statement on this potentially damaging outbreak. I have personal experience of the disease in cattle in Argentina. While it is not normally lethal, it is debilitating to the animals concerned and highly infectious. I hope that the Government have learnt the lessons from the recent swine fever outbreak. The most immediate and important of those is that compensation must be guaranteed now to make it emphatically worth while for farmers to report the disease and, even more important, to inhibit them from trying to avoid being affected by bans on the movement of animals away from the prophylactic zone round the outbreak. I am grateful that the Statement contains an assurance about the payment of compensation for animals which are slaughtered. I hope that the Minister will be able to give a further assurance about those whose businesses are being ruined.

There must be absolutely strict control on the movement of other animals, particularly cattle, sheep and goats, within the area concerned. I welcome the imminent imposition of the ban on the export of live cattle, pigs and sheep, stringent though it is and awful shock though it will be to farmers still reeling from the swine fever and from such bad trading conditions.

Where this came from and whether the proper action was taken to control imports of fresh meat will be the subject of further inquiry. At the moment it seems likely that the source was infected meat from South Africa. When did the Government know about the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in KwaZulu? Is it true that the European Union did not immediately ban the import of beef from South Africa, although many of South Africa's neighbouring countries did so last September? When did a ban on imports of fresh meat from South Africa into the EU take place? How can the Government explain the delay? Do we still have a policy of slaughtering and destroying all infected herds? It seems so from the Statement, but what is the policy in other EU countries? Have there been any recent outbreaks of the disease in any other countries of the EU?

The infected pigs seem to have come from two different farms in Buckinghamshire and the Isle of Wight. Is this not worrying and an indication that the disease might already have spread round the country? Can the Minister say how long the pigs in Brentwood have been infected? When would they have been exposed to the virus? Would that have occurred in Buckinghamshire?

This situation could be very serious and points once again, I fear, to the lax regime we have regarding control of imported food and its sources: first, there was the outbreak of swine fever and now foot and mouth. Conservatives are already committed to cracking down on the import of substandard food products. When will the Government do likewise?

2.45 p.m.

My Lords, we on this side of the House express our concern about the outbreak. This is a serious disease indeed. We welcome the early Statement. All of us want to ensure that the Government are responding quickly. They seem to be doing that on the basis of information already made available by the Minister this afternoon.

We are confident that our farmers will take the matter seriously and will be vigilant. We want to know what is being done to find the cause of the outbreak, to isolate it and to prevent it from spreading now that there is evidence that another farm is likely to have been affected.

We are also worried that this is a big setback for our farmers who are already suffering. We do not need to call for any new measures—these are already in place—regarding insurance and so on. We just need assurances from government that these mechanisms will be used to help the farmers without delay.

Is the Minister able to give any indication whether the source of infection has been identified and whether there is a link between different farms and the abattoir which has already been mentioned?

2.47 p.m.

My Lords, I am grateful for the questions of both noble Lords and for the recognition from the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, that we made the Statement quickly. Unfortunately, that means that I do not have answers to all of the questions that have been posed. All of them are correct questions and we are, of course, investigating as a matter of the greatest urgency the strain of the disease, the possible locus of the outbreak and, therefore, the areas where we need to impose restrictions.

The noble Lord, Lord Luke, should be careful as regards jumping to conclusions about the spread of disease given that the pigs that were found in the abattoir came from different farms. Those pigs were in the lairage of the abattoir for some time. We do not know where infection occurred. That is exactly the kind of information that it is crucial to find out. As I said in the Statement, a large number of farms from all over the United Kingdom supplied that abattoir in the course of last week. A large number of lorry movements were involved, all of those will have to be traced and all of those farms examined. We cannot now give definitive answers on that matter.

I shall, if I may, write to the noble Lord, Lord Luke, on the exact details of the South African outbreak. There has only been one recent outbreak within the EU in Greece last year. That was successfully contained. There is at the moment no known disease within the EU, which would suggest that the source of this was beyond the EU. However, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Luke, that I was slightly disappointed with his final comments when he introduced party politics into the matter. I do not believe that this is a matter of party politics. It is not a matter of substandard food products being imported. It is illegal to import food products from any area where there is foot and mouth disease. We have to be rigorous about policing that measure. Those would be illegal imports if they had occurred and that was the source of the infection. However, we should not prejudge the source.

Of course, we need to learn from last year's swine fever outbreak. We were in the process of doing so. The Chief Veterinary Officer held a round-up meeting recently about action which needed to be taken forward. We know some of the networks we have to bring into place. It is a very serious challenge for veterinary and other staff. I assure the House that we are devoting all the resources necessary to take that challenge on board.

My Lords, I appreciate that it is difficult for the Minister to be precise. However, my noble friend Lord Luke repeated something that I heard on the BBC radio this morning: that herds were believed to come from Buckinghamshire and the Isle of Wight. I declare an interest. Is it possible for the noble Baroness to be more precise?

My Lords, no. Urgent investigations are going on at the farms from which pigs came which had symptoms in the abattoir. As I sought to explain earlier, there is no certainty that the animals were infected on farm. Indeed, the initial veterinary surveillance has shown no symptoms of clinical disease among animals on those farms. That is why we may be dealing with a more complex route of infection than the simple identification of the farm of origin of infected animals in the abattoir.

My Lords, it comes as a shock to know that we have foot and mouth disease in this country after some 20 years of freedom from it. I am sure that a number of lessons will be learned from this new outbreak. The Minister will agree that protection of this country against these highly infectious diseases demands eternal vigilance by the surveillance authorities, especially the veterinary profession and the government veterinary services.

I am confident that the nature of the virus and its origin will be quickly determined by the Pirbright laboratory—the animal virus research laboratory—a foot and mouth reference laboratory which works globally in this respect. Can the Minister assure the House that there will be no further erosion of support for surveillance services for animal disease in this country? My noble friend Lord Luke referred to the potential import of highly infectious exotic diseases. That issue requires continuous surveillance by the surveillance authorities. The noble Baroness mentioned the swine fever of a few months ago, and now foot and mouth diseases; and others of which we need to be aware lurk potentially on the horizon.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. We allow commercial imports only from countries which are guaranteed free from foot and mouth disease. We are considering all the possible routes of entry of illegal imports, including personal imports. We are in discussion with the Association of British Travel Agents and airlines about this, as well as the more conventional routes.

I hope that I can reassure him on the issue of veterinary surveillance. Last year we issued a report for consultation. I was at a meeting yesterday of the board which is steering the drawing up of a new veterinary surveillance strategy. In that strategy, on which we shall consult publicly, we shall take on board the issues to which he referred, including eternal vigilance.

My Lords, it is devastating news. My sympathy goes to the Minister's department—a department in which I was involved some 40 years ago. First, are veterinary staffing levels adequate? Secondly, will similar methods be used to stamp out the trouble? My noble friend referred to compensation. Will compensation be considered?

My Lords, first, we have the laboratory facilities to which the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, referred. We have a great deal of veterinary expertise. If necessary, we can call on veterinary expertise from the private sector in this country and from abroad. We had considerable help from America and other countries during the recent outbreak of classical swine fever. We shall take the advice of the Chief Veterinary Officer on this matter. We shall, of course, obtain additional support if needed.

Equally, I recognise the need for a clear and decisive slaughter policy in order to bring the disease under control as swiftly and effectively as we can. We shall be paying compensation at full market value for any animal slaughtered to control disease.

It is only right to pay tribute to the responsible attitude of the farming community in East Anglia during the recent outbreak. I am sure that it will be mirrored nationally among the farming community in recognising the terrible dangers of allowing the spread of the disease and the need to co-operate. That has been demonstrated by its early responses to MAFF and veterinary action.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that it is unnecessary for the British Government to obtain any kind of permission or approval from the European Commission before the Government take what action they consider necessary?

My Lords, the appropriate way to proceed—as we have done—is in partnership with the EU. We need appropriate action; and we are taking that appropriate action. Equally, we need to be able to guarantee that appropriate action will be taken against other countries in similar circumstances. That is what we would expect and the Community would rightly expect that from us. It is not a question of either/or. We are of one mind.

My Lords, can the Minister assure the farmers of this country that the Government will pursue a slaughtering policy? Can the Minister give that assurance to the industry?

My Lords, I have heard no questioning of the need for continuation of the slaughtering policy. How that policy is carried out on outdoor pig units and disposal of pigs when carcasses can be infectious pose technical and practical problems. But the need to slaughter out any potentially dangerous contacts and infected animals is understood and accepted.