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11:00 - 23 August 2005

Millions of farm animals could still be compulsorily slaughtered if there is another foot and mouth outbreak in the Westcountry, if planned changes to government regulations are brought in. Current rules give ministers "discretion to slaughter" herds if there is another outbreak, meaning the decision rests with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). However, the EU Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) Directive is being implemented in UK law, with a date set for December 1 this year. To fit it in with existing legislation, the Animal Health Act 2002 is being amended, changing "discretion" to "duty" to slaughter in some cases, meaning all affected livestock would be automatically culled if foot and mouth disease is found on a farm.

Farming leaders are divided over the issue, saying it raised the spectre of government officials and police being legally allowed to force their way on to farms to carry out culls, while others say it is a necessary change.

John Daw, chairman of the South West regional dairy board said: "This is the kind of thing that strange animal called Defra is thinking, they just ignore all sensible consultation. It seems as if they are being deliberately provocative.

"They do consult, but you know what they want the answer to be beforehand. If the 'duty to slaughter' had existed before the last outbreak it would mean they could have just marched on to farms with armed police. If you didn't do it voluntarily, it would be made compulsory."

Devon farmer Richard Haddock, chairman of the NFU's national livestock board, said at a time when it was clear there were no checks on foreign meat imported into the UK, it was wrong to impose potentially harsher measures on British farms. "We are still very concerned at the wording, I think a lot of farmers are," he said. "How do we know that the trials and the tests have been done properly? It seems to be another example of them trying to put British farming out of business."

Defra's consultation document on the change describes the change in wording as a "minor technical amendment".

"The proposal is to change the Secretary of State's current discretion to slaughter in certain situations (including on infected premises) to a duty to slaughter," it says. "There are certain exceptions which are set out in the Directive, for example in laboratories, zoos, wildlife parks, for rare breeds and for separate production units."

Some farmers' groups have played down the significance of the changes. Bill Harper, the National Beef Association's chairman in the South West argued that culling had been effectively compulsory in 2001 FMD outbreak.

"I wouldn't have a problem with it," he said. "If a farm has foot and mouth it has to be dealt with. I don't really see it as a big issue, it was more or less compulsory in the end last time. I think people are far more concerned to know that compensation is being sorted and border controls for animals are being sorted."

Anthony Gibson, regional director of the South West NFU agreed that the changes made sense.

"In the end, if you have an outbreak, slaughter of the affected animals and those around them is going to be the centre point of the policy, if it can be stamped early it is always best."

A Defra spokesman said the Government was required to make the change to fit in with EU legislation agreed in 2003.

"It doesn't affect our policy and it also has the benefit of ensuring that our approach to FMD is common across the European Union," the spokesman said. "This does not apply to premises where disease has not been confirmed, where we would retain full discretion to cull or vaccinate as is justified by the scientific and veterinary risk of disease spread.

"There are also a number of special exemptions to compulsory slaughter on infected premises, where we would retain the discretion to slaughter." The consultation ends on September 1.

WMN Opinion - Page 10