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June 30 2004


The controversial policy that led to the slaughter of millions of healthy animals during the 2001 foot and mouth disaster could be used again, the Animal Health Minister Ben Bradshaw said yesterday.

Speaking at the start of a major foot and mouth simulation exercise, Mr Bradshaw said that the contiguous cull policy might be repeated in a future outbreak, despite having been widely discredited three years ago.

The policy, which involved slaughtering out livestock on all holdings neighbouring infected farms, was heavily criticised because in many cases there was no evidence that the animals slaughtered could have come into contact with the disease. Anthony Gibson, director of the National Farmers' Union in the South West, described it at the time as "one of the most bloody, tragic and disgraceful misjudgments made in the name of science".

But Mr Bradshaw made it clear yesterday that the policy would be very much on the agenda in any future outbreak, despite a commitment to give greater consideration to using vaccination to control the disease. Speaking about the simulated exercise, in which "outbreaks" were found in Cornwall, Cheshire, Lincolnshire and Scotland, he said: "We hope to avoid contiguous culling, but we have not ruled it out. It is not ruled out in any of the policy documents, and the scientific modelling may show that it would lead to the disease being brought under control more quickly.

"We would clearly have to take into account the political implications of that, together with the experience in 2001 where it was very unpopular. But we would have to weigh that against advantages that the policy may have."

Mr Bradshaw said vaccination was "a very useful tool". But he said it would only be used as an alternative to culling in certain circumstances.

During the foot and mouth crisis, proposals to use vaccination to contain the epidemic - a measure used successfully in the Netherlands - were ruled out by the Government over fears it would hit the meat and dairy export trade, worth 500 million. As the contiguous cull spread, the total cost of the crisis went on to top 8 billion.

Mr Bradshaw's comments caused dismay yesterday amongst those who lived through the 2001 crisis. Mr Gibson said he would be "very surprised" if contiguous culling was used instead of vaccination to create a "firebreak" to halt the spread of the disease. He said: "It would be very unpopular as it was last time, because it involves the culling of thousands of healthy animals."

David Hill, who served as the NFU's Devon chairman in 2001, said the notion of contiguous culling was "ludicrous" because it took no account of the situation on individual farms. "Any culling should be based on the likelihood that an animal has come into contact with the disease. It makes you wonder whether they have learnt anything at all."

Janet Bayley, of the National Foot and Mouth Group, said it would be "extremely worrying" if the Government moved culling back up the agenda. She said European policy now placed vaccination at the forefront of the control strategy.

The two-day simulation exercise launched yesterday was designed to test the workings of the contingency plan drawn up by the Government in the wake of the disaster, when more than six million animals were slaughtered and vast swathes of the countryside were shut for months on end. The desk-based exercise involved 320 staff at the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Mr Bradshaw said he hoped the exercise would demonstrate that the Government had "learned the lessons of some of the mistakes made then".

He said that in any future outbreaks, only footpaths running close to infected farms would be closed in a bid to minimise the impact on rural tourism. And he said there would be no repeat of the mass pyres, which became one of the images of the 2001 disaster. Instead, slaughtered animals would be sent to commercial incineration and rendering plants or licensed landfill sites. On-farm pyres would only be used in exceptional circumstances.<