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Britain at serious risk of new foot and mouth outbreaks, EU warns

By Severin Carrell

06 March 2005

Britain is at serious risk of a major outbreak of foot and mouth disease or bird flu because of dangerously lax controls on farms and abattoirs, an official report has warned.

Experts from the European Commission claim ministers have failed to learn the lessons of the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth, and are failing to properly monitor farms, slaughterhouses and animals to stop the spread of serious disease, such as the bird flu devastating South-east Asia.

In a damning report released last week, the commission claimed that many small farms were not properly registered and that at one major abattoir it found "serious concerns" that the vets were too overworked to carry out adequate health and hygiene checks.

The inspectors found farm trucks not being properly cleaned at markets, animal health checks at markets being too slow and lax, and government vets failing to visit farms often enough.

These problems played a crucial role in the spread of foot and mouth disease in 2001 - an epidemic that led to six million cows, pigs and sheep being slaughtered and a global export ban that cost the British economy nearly 2bn.

The report, which follows an inspection by commission experts last summer, claims the Government failed to act effectively on similar criticisms in 2002. Although the authorities had made a "major effort" to draw up a national crisis plan, its effectiveness risked being "compromised by [these] deficiencies".

Its claims have infuriated the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has accused the commission's experts of being "negative" and giving a distorted view.

Ministers have refused to implement several of the recommendations, such as increasing vet numbers at slaughterhouses and ensuring vets are properly trained. It has also rejected demands to ensure Britain has enough incinerators to handle large numbers of cattle, claiming that would be too expensive.

But Defra admitted that it needs to hire and train another 100 vets as a "hit squad", and agreed that farm visits need to be stepped up.