4 March 2001
Minister blames markets not abattoirs

by Alistair Driver

MEASURES to curb the spread of foot-and-mouth disease at livestock markets could be introduced following a far-reaching government investigation.

Agriculture minister Nick Brown said the extent of infection across Britain was largely down to the complex network of sheep movements through markets.

The major cause of the spread was infected sheep coming into contact with other sheep at markets before animal movements were banned on 23 February.

It is widely believed that infected sheep sold at Hexham market, Northumberland, on 13 February set helped spread the disease.

The sheep, which were moved to Longtown market, Carlisle, set off a chain of infection when they were bought by Devon livestock dealer William Cleave.

Mr Brown said: “I have been struck by the number of movements within the trade. This is old agriculture, not new agriculture.”

A government review of the agricultural sector crisis that will start once the foot-and-mouth crisis is under control will focus on livestock markets, he added.

This could lead to action to curb a repeat of the current situation, although the minister refused to indicate what sort of action would be considered.

He was keen to divert blame away from changes in the abattoir sector that has seen numbers drop from 1385 in 1975 to just 316 last year.

He said stock has been transported substantial distances to abattoirs for many years, Mr Brown told reporters at a briefing on Saturday (3 March).

Pigs that were the source of infection travelled from Northumberland to Essex only because Cheale Meats offered a special service for slaughtering old sows.

This was not a reflection of the decline of the small abattoir sector and was not a factor in spreading the disease, said Mr Brown.

The review will also investigate how the outbreak started.

It will consider how increased world travel and the globalisation of trade has increased the risk of infections from abroad entering the UK.

It will also examine the swill-feeding of pigs on waste food a practice blamed for triggering the foot-and-mouth outbreak which came to light two weeks ago.

All premises licensed to make or use swill feed, which can legally contain pigmeat, will be investigated in the coming months.

An investigation is already underway into the swill-feeding practices that might have led to pigs being contaminated at Burnside Farm, Heddon-on-the-Wall.

Mr Brown said something illegal must have taken place at some point because rules governing swill-feeding should ensure no infected material is fed to pigs.

He refused to speculate on whether the government may ban the practice but said that there could be room for tightening the rules governing it.

Foot-and-mouth – confirmed outbreaks
Foot-and-mouth – FWi coverage