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Why Always mass slaughter?- Abigail Woods

This is an extract from an article by Abigail Woods, a vet who is researching the history of FMD at Manchester University under a grant from the Welcome Trust, published in the Guardian, February 28th 2001

In their efforts to stamp out the current outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, the Ministry of Agriculture are applying measures that have changed little in more than 100 years: all infected animals must be slaughtered. The current outbreak has revived the memories of those who lived through the 1967-68 outbreak--the most devastating in British history. Yet that was merely the latest in a long history of devastation wreaked by this disease, which was rarely absent from its first recorded appearance in Britain in 1839. The rapid spread of FMD by frequently unidentified means and the far-reaching consequences of the government's chosen control policy meant that, for years--until supplanted by BSE-- FMD was widely regarded as the most dangerous animal plague known.

But FMD is not a killer disease. Most strains cause only sporadic deaths among young or sick animals; the vast majority suffer only lameness and loss of appetite, usually recovering in two or three weeks. Nor does FMD have many human health implications. Transfer to humans is rare and symptoms are mild. Because of this, the slaughter policy in the past has stimulated widespread opposition.

The government's justification for slaughter is older than the policy itself. It is based solely on the fact that recovered animals show a decline in meat and milk productivity. Given its extreme contagiousness, officials say that if the disease is permitted to spread freely, the economic losses inflicted would outweigh the costs of eliminating FMD.

In addition, the occurrence of even a single case of FMD leads many disease-free nations to place an immediate ban upon our valuable export trade. Disease freedom is therefore a precondition of international trade, and this could not be obtained through disease treatment or Flaccination.

The Agriculture Ministry therefore regards FMD primarily as an economic problem, not an animal welfare or public health issue. But while the productivity and export arguments may favour FMD elimination at the present time of intensive farming and open EU trade, they do not explain the origin of this policy nor its continuation throughout most of the 20th century.

It can be argued, indeed, that the slaughter policy has been self-reinforcing, giving rise to the very agricultural and economic conditions which justify its continuation.

Large-scale state control of livestock disease dates from the 1860s, by which time FMD had been prevalent for more than 20 years. Slaughter, import regulation and movement restriction were introduced to control the much more lethal 'cattle plague', a new contagious disease which devastated the national herd from 1865-67.

Because of the success of such measures, there was a movement for the extension of controls to manage other prevailing contagious ailments, including FMD, although there was strong opposition to this because of the widespread belief that FMD was an extremely mild and inconsequential disease very unlike cattle plague. But this view was successfully countered by influential and wealthy animal breeders who wanted to protect their export trade. This 'protection of exports' has always been a prime reason for compulsory slaughter even though, when it was introduced nearly 90 years ago, there was little farming exports by the UK-except for pedigree livestock. It was not until after the second world war that farm export trade expanded.

By this time, a new emphasis on agricultural productivity which favoured intensive farming methods gave further justification to strict FMD controls. The fact that many nations were now disease-free and imposed export bans on infected countries was, in itself, a direct result of British action to compulsorily slaughter. In setting up the European Commission on FMD in 1954, Britain successfully encouraged other countries to adopt similar FMD controls. The existence of reciprocal export bans thereby reinforced the ministry's position on the need to eliminate the disease rather than simply control it. Using arguments of productivity and the export trade, the ministry has repeatedly refused to contemplate alternative FMD controls.

However, this reliance upon such primitive measures has drawn frequent criticism, as huge scientific advances in disease control developed during the late 19th and 20th century have seemingly passed FMD by. If it never intended to diversify FMD controls, why did the UK government pour #millions into a FMD research institute, with the express aim of making FMD less harmful to Britain? In 1952, FMD spread through out Europe, where it was combated using newly-developed vaccines. MAFF refused to consider such a step, despite rampant disease in Britain. In fact, vaccine research and production did occur in Britain, but only as a result of the Second World War, when the ministry feared that a shortage of meat would necessitate vaccination.

This story of FMD explodes the myth that the biological features of a disease automatically inform its 'correct' management. It also reveals the diversity of economic arguments used to support slaughter--not all of which are openly acknowledged to the public. In response to the present outbreak, the government, as in the past, will undoubtedly explain FMD slaughter in terms of productivity and the export market, and in economic terms their arguments will probably be justified.

But these reasons have effectiviely been 'created' over time--in part, to provide additional justification for an always-questionable policy.