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EU inquiry damns 'inept' handling of foot and mouth crisis


By Robert Uhlig, Farming Correspondent
(Filed: 21/11/2002)

The Government's handling of the foot and mouth crisis was condemned yesterday by a European Parliament inquiry as inept, traumatising for farmers and in contravention of animal welfare laws.

At the end of a year-long investigation, the cross-party committee unanimously approved the final version of the damning report.

Castigating ministers and officials for adding to farmers' anguish with red tape and bureaucratic delays, it recommended far-reaching changes in policy and tactics to combat future animal disease epidemics.

Caroline Lucas, vice-president of the inquiry committee, said: "The Government's obsession with protecting its agricultural export markets at all cost brought financial ruin to much of rural England.

"Our inquiry has found that this was a massive dereliction of duty and that vaccination should be the first response."

The report's adoption is a major blow for the Prime Minister, who refused to set up an independent public inquiry, and for Labour, whose MEPs tried to prevent the inquiry being established.

The report, which will be used for the basis of a new EU directive on foot and mouth, says that emergency vaccination, with the aim of allowing animals to live and enter the food chain, should "no longer be regarded as a last resort for controlling FMD but must be considered as a first-choice option from the outset".

"It has become clear from the 2001 epidemic that mass culling on the scale seen in the UK and the Netherlands will not be publicly acceptable again and that alternative strategies are therefore essential," it adds.

The report suggests that the true scale of infection was exaggerated or obscured to justify the contiguous cull policy. "Since only a very small number of cases were actually tested, and that relatively few cases were confirmed to have the disease, it is crucial that the epidemiological data be published and subject to independent critical analysis," it says.

It says there were unpardonable delays in decision-making, "violations of animal welfare legislation during culls", with breaches of environmental legislation in the arrangements for mass burial pits and funeral pyres for slaughtered animals.

Blaming the Government for failing to bring the disease under control, it recommends that all farmers - not just those who lost livestock - but those who suffered consequentially along with other affected industries such as tourism - should be entitled to compensation. It also calls on the European Commission "as a matter of urgency" to review its policy on meat imports.