April 25, 2001: Britain is experiencing an epidemic of foot and mouth disease, caused by a highly infectious viral pathogen that infects cloven-hooved animals including cattle, sheep and pigs. To curb the disease' spread, the government has adopted a policy of slaughtering both infected animals and healthy animals at a distance of up to 3 kilometers from infection sites. Nevertheless, there have been outbreaks of the disease throughout the length and breadth of the country.
According to officially inspired statements, it might be concluded that the onset and rapid spread of the disease has been largely due to incompetence or criminality of farmers. Early on, government sources indicated that the disease originated with infected offal from illegally imported meat that was fed to pigs in swill from a Chinese restaurant. Diverting attention from the government's failure to prevent the importation of infected meat, official sources blamed the farmer concerned for failing to boil the swill as required under government regulations. The farmer, however, denies the allegation and he may well have truth on his side, since there is at least one alternative possible source of infection.
Until January of this year Britain allowed the import of frozen meat from South Africa, where foot and mouth disease is endemic among wildlife, where an outbreak of the new pan-Asian ‘O’ strain of the disease occurred in KwaZulu last autumn and where the disease was reported among cattle near the borders of Botswana this February (1,2). The virus is known to remain infective in frozen meat for months. It is entirely possible, therefore, that frozen meat legally imported from South Africa was the source of the U.K. foot and mouth epidemic. Moreover, failure by the U.K. government to ban meat imports from South Africa until January this year may have been politically motivated. Thus as Bruce Anderson writes in this week's Spectator "A recommendation for a ban on South African meat would have been unwelcome last September. Nelson Mandela was due to address the Labour party conference. Equally, the Foreign Office had other reasons for resisting anything which would jeopardise harmonious relations with South Africa. At that stage, the hope was that Thabo Mbeki might be persuaded to move against Robert Mugabe" (2).
To explain the rapid spread of the disease, government sources suggested that "dodgy farmers" were moving animals illegally in order to obtain EU subsidies by fraud. There was also a Downing Street inspired allegation that farmers were infecting their own livestock to obtain compensation payments (2), notwithstanding that some owners of slaughtered herds have been encouraged to surrender their shot guns because they are considered at risk of suicide.
A quite different explanation for the rapid spread of the disease is suggested by consideration of the government's actions. After 8 weeks of the epidemic, more than 1400 outbreaks have been reported, more than one million animals have been slaughtered, over half a million animals await slaughter and over 400,000 carcasses, some at an advanced stage of decomposition, await disposal. It is the failure to arrange the prompt burial or incineration of slaughtered animals that may have created the most effective means of spreading the disease. According to U.S. experts who have studied plans for coping with a U.S. outbreak of foot and mouth disease "The virus that causes the disease could pass through the intestines of birds feeding on the carcasses of dead animals. When those birds fly to adjoining farms, they could spread the disease through their feces, far ahead of containment efforts" (3). If those assumptions are correct, then it seems quite probably that the U.K. government's actions, which have resulted in the carcasses of many thousands of infected animals being left for weeks in the open air, where they are accessible to both winged and four-legged carrion feeders, has been the main cause of the rapid distribution of foot and mouth disease during the current U.K. epidemic.