Review by Dr Helen Szamuely
A Manufactured Plague
The History of Foot and Mouth Disease in Britain
2004 Earthscan 208 pp 1-84407-080-8
The 2001 foot and mouth epidemic was was described as the most severe in this country's history. But when one starts disentangling truth and propaganda (or plain falsehood) one realizes that it was not the epidemic itself that was severe but the government's handling of it. The Ministry and its tame scientists refused to contemplate ring vaccination, despite the anguished pleas of many highly respected veterinarians and despite clear evidence all round the world that vaccination does work. Instead, they pressed ahead with contiguous culling, a misnomer if ever there was one, since it was a wholesale slaughter of healthy animals, often in appalling conditions.
Few other organizations came out well of that whole shambolic period. The NFU listened to its richer members and supported the slaughter, though its spokesmen have used every possible opportunity since then to announce that they did not oppose vaccination and, in any case, they did so because they were told by government scientists that there were no alternatives. Other producer organizations wavered but, on the whole, stayed with the same opinion.
The RSPCA, so vociferous on the subject of hunting, was very little in evidence when some of the more shocking stories started coming out.
Some courageous farmers and livestock owners stood up to the might of the state, reinforced as it was eventually by highly efficient and disciplined but rather bemused soldiers. After the epidemic more legislation was introduced that tried to impose draconian penalties on all those who refused to obey diktats, however stupid and counterproductive they might be.
For those of us who were and still are involved in these rows and arguments it is enlightening but also depressing to read Abigail Woods's book. She traces the history of the disease in Britain from the beginning of the nineteenth century and shows quite conclusively that its reputation as the animal plague to end all plagues stems entirely from the legislative acts that were introduced to cope with the disease.
A ban on imported livestock meant that when FMD reappeared in Britain at the end of the nineteenth century, other countries refused to buy British animals. To the few influential exporters slaughter appeared a preferable alternative. Similarly, the imposition of movement bans, cancelling of fairs and markets propelled opinion towards mass slaughter of animals.
The real tragedy of the situation is that, while this may have appeared to be the right answer at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the development of vaccination since then should have changed opinion. But as with meat inspection, so with treatment of various animal diseases: the veterinarian science of Britain, controlled by the ministry (under different names) has not moved much beyond the end of the nineteenth century. Whether we shall do so as a result of the shock of the last epidemic and the government's treatment of it, remains to be seen. In the meanwhile, Abigail Woods's book should be made compulsory reading in DEFRA, NFU and numerous other organizations.