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FMD: 1967 Remembered - A nightmare of the future?  ¦  No Borders for Global Meat Trade

by 5m Editor
28 February 2001, at 12:00am

In the light of the recent Foot-and-Mouth Outbreak in the UK, thePigSite.com has published two articles. The first, by our Consultant Mike Muirhead, "remembers 1967" and asks is worst to come this time round. The Second looks at the global meat trade and considers the responsibilities of today's society.



Reflections of 1967 - A nightmare of the future?

Our Yorkshire Veterinary Consultant reflects on the 1967 Foot and Mouth outbreak, and provides an incite into the frightening possibility of what might lie ahead.

Mike Muirhead It seems a distant past some 34 years ago when foot and mouth disease broke out in Cheshire, but the current outbreak brings back many memories of the disaster at that time. I was drafted in from general practice in Yorkshire in October of that year, approximately 2 weeks after the disease started. I joined many other veterinary surgeons drafted in from other parts of the country.


Disinfectant and Carcasses

Animal Carcasses I arrived in Oswestry on the first Saturday afternoon of October "designated clean" because I had not seen foot and mouth disease before. As I approached the town the air was thick with the of smell disinfectant and burning carcasses. Later, as the night drew in the sky would glow a warm red from numerous fires, a scene which was to become all to familiar.

I was immediately dispatched to the hills behind the town to carry out inspections of 3 potential contact farms. I remember it vividly. It was a dull, misty day and it took some time for me to find my bearings. By the time I arrived at the gate of my first farm it was dusk.

The gate was shut and firmly padlocked. A burley farmer stood guard, there was clearly no way he was going to let me in. I tried to reason with him explaining that I was "totally clean", had not had any foot-and-mouth contact and that I fully understood his concerns. His life's work lay at the bottom of the drive. Sadly I had to say to him that his next visit would be in conjunction with the law and I left. The farm was examined the next day. It is difficult to comprehend or indeed imagine that your business and often the labours of generations could be destroyed no matter how hard you tried to prevent it.

First experience

Two days later I was moved to Market Drayton, a heavily affected area. Within 24 hours I was on my way to a suspect case at a farm of 360 cows and 2,500 finishing pigs. As I drove down the drive to the buildings a cow was standing still in the field, her mouth open with saliva drooling. This was my first terrifying experience of disease.

On the farm I examined an old Friesian cow, she looked at me with obvious pain in her eyes, tongue protruding. I held out my hand and placed it on the end of her badly blistered tongue, which to my great dismay simply came off in my hand leaving a raw ulcerated area behind. The cow trembled with pain.

There were 8 cows showing symptoms and after phone confirmation from the Ministry, I had the unenviable task of destroying these animals immediately, pending valuation of the remainder of the herd. I ordered an immediate standstill of everything on or off the farm and, as this was my first case, I was joined by another veterinary surgeon who had already dealt with procedures on an affected farm. Following this initial experience I was considered dirty and from this time on I would only work on affected premises.

The first decision was whether to burn or bury the infected animals. This decision was made with the advice from the water board depending on the water table. On this farm we were told to burn. The logistics of slaughtering and burning so many animals were complex but the organisation by MAFF was excellent. Suddenly tons of coal, railway sleepers, diesel, oil, straw and personnel arrived with diggers and JCBS. Together with gallons of disinfectant.

All stock on the farm was valued by the farmer's auctioneer the following morning, by which time another 9 cows were showing symptoms. By mid afternoon a team of 6 slaughtermen had arrived and destruction of all the animals on the farm commenced. This continued into the late hours of the night and the early hours of the following morning. Time is absolutely vital to reduce the weight of virus being excreted from infected animals.

The pyre

Funeral Pyre A trench 250 yards long was dug and lined with straw. Wooden railway sleepers were then laid across the straw followed by cows with pigs placed in between. This whole site was then covered with 2 feet of straw, sprayed with 600 gallons of diesel and lit. The fire lit the day and night sky for 2 days and at the end only ash remained.

My most poignant memories even today were of the farmers and staff who lost their herds and in many cases their livelihoods. The stoicism and realism with which they accepted the outcome was quite remarkable and they had my greatest admiration.

Imagine the mental trauma for farmers as they wait, wondering if their farm will be next in line. Having to examining their stock 3 times daily, hoping against hope. Then the sudden realisation, the inevitability of finding the symptoms, then having to stand and view the destruction of a lifetimes work.

Pain and suffering

It was not easy to accept wholesale destruction of large populations of animals, however it is difficult to explain the pain and suffering foot-amd-mouth disease causes animals, particularly cows. The disease is highly infectious disease caused by a very tiny virus. It affects all cloven-hoofed animals that is cows, sheep, pigs and deer, causing severe blistering on the lips, mouth, tongue and feet.

The virus can be spread on the wind, up to 35 miles over land and 180 miles over water. The other main sources of spread are infected animals themselves and mechanical movement of the virus either via transportation or on contaminated clothing, footwear etc. It is vitally important therefore that people do not travel across the countryside, particularly fields during outbreaks and more particularly in infected areas.

There are seven main types of the virus with many different strains within each type. This makes the preparation of effective vaccines for specific outbreaks, extremely difficult.

Why?

People often ask the question "is all this slaughtering necessary, vaccines are available, why not vaccinate?"

There are a number of reasons why most countries adopt slaughter policies.

Firstly, there is no treatment for foot-and-mouth and the disease causes great pain and suffering particularly in cows (imagine trying to eat with no skin on your tongue). Although animals may not die due to infection, afterwards the animal loses condition and suffers a major loss of production. This creates obvious welfare and ongoing economic consequences.

Vaccines are available but as already stated there are different distinct strains of the virus and immunity is not long lasting. Every single animal for eternity would have to be vaccinated 2 or 3 times a year - an incredibly difficult and expensive task, especially in an agriculturally intensive country such as Britain. Furthermore it would be impossible to anticipate the strains of virus likely to infect any population at risk.

Once vaccination was accepted the disease would become "endemic", or permanently present in the population. As a consequence it would then infect all cloven-hoofed animals in the country. The European union would then become an "infected area", being unable to sell or market animals to other countries. This would cause a livestock "meltdown."

Only way forward

Having seen the disease and its affects I am of the opinion, and every one I came into contact with accepted, that the destruction of livestock is the only way forward. We must have every sympathy with the farm fraternity and give total support by keeping away from the farms and the countryside until the disease has been eradicated.

In 1967 the outbreak was eventually contained to the areas around Cheshire, resulting in over four-hundred thousand animals being slaughtered. This time we may not be so fortunate.

EU and Government regulations have resulted in the loss of numerous local abattoirs resulting in animals being transported the length of the country for slaughter. Changes to global marketing and the demands of the retailers drive the intensification of agriculture both creating ideal conditions for the rapid spread of disease.

If fortune runs out as it appears to be doing, it is almost impossible to comprehend the sheer scale of the carnage to follow. Lets pray not, but in 2001 the counting may not be in the thousands.

The end - in 1968

It was some 6 months after my initial experience in 1967 that the disease was finally eradicated, due to the heroic efforts and sacrifices of many, many people.


No borders for global meat trade

As British meat is banned from many countries because of the foot-and-mouth outbreak, we consider the global nature of the trade.

Outdoor Pigs
Outdoor Production - but please don't feed the animals
Many people are now asking as to how this could happen again, but the answer lies in the fact that meat production is now a global industry.

In many areas of the world viral diseases such as swine fever and foot-and-mouth are endemic.

The main problem is that many of these viruses are highly resistant to chilling, freezing and curing and experience has shown that even boiling may not destroy all disease organisms.

Even a tiny amount of meat or dairy product could contain a dangerous virus and if eaten by pigs, poultry or other animals, it could allow the disease to establish itself.

Both producers and consumers need to know the risks.

A carelessly discarded pie could have been the cause of last year's swine fever outbreak in the UK and the use of infected pig swill was believed to be the cause of the recent South African foot-and-mouth outbreak.

For these reasons the feeding of meat products to animals has been banned in many countries for many years, even prior to the additional requirements resulting from the BSE crisis.

Animal welfare, media and consumer pressures are dictating a move to more "welfare friendly" methods, such as outdoor production.

Outdoor production

Animal welfare improvements can only be a good thing.

However, one of the main reasons why animal production moved indoors was to reduce the risk from disease.

Outdoor production increases the risk of disease, which in the UK is to be compounded by legislation allowing increased access to the countryside.

In today's world these two goals might appear incompatible.

People need to be aware that times have changed. In the past the local farmer raised, fed and fattened his animals locally.

The animals were then sent to the local slaughterhouse or butcher from whence they went to the local shops to be eaten by the local community.

Animals and people all mucked in together and the risk of disease spreading was low.

Global marketplace

In today's global economy, animals can be bred on one farm, fattened on another, slaughtered in a different country, then processed and eaten in yet another country.

Add to that all the transportation and the globetrotting of both man and beast, is it surprising that disease outbreaks are becoming more prevalent?

Leaving out the global economics of farming, the different controls and standards set by different governments and the arguments of farm gate and supermarket prices (which all contribute hugely to the situation but are not under the control of the individual), it remains vital that the risks and responsibilities created by today's society are understood and respected by all.

Unfortunately, given the omnipresent global marketplace, there is no way of knowing where the meat in most processed food products has come from.

It is vitally important we all make the effort to ensure our own waste meat products do not enter the food chain.