Mad Cows, Madder Government

Britain's livestock industry and farming community have been sacrificed to the madness of Brussels

By Dave Kopel, Paul Gallant, & Joanne Eisen of the Independence Institute. Mr. Kopel's grandfather Cornelius Blanke was a world-champion breeder of Spotted Poland China hogs.

National Review Online, June 12, 2001 9:20 a.m. More by Kopel on Great Britain and the European Union.

Phoenix, the orphaned white calf, is safe. But her life started out on a rocky road. A plague, Foot and Mouth Disease (F&M, for brevity--or more properly "hoof and mouth," since cattle have hooves, not feet), has been spreading across Great Britain since February. The plague has threatened continental Europe's neighbors as well. And Phoenix was left to die, next to her mother, by lethal injection.

Poor Phoenix. She was caught in a trap set by Prime Minister Tony Blair's ambitions. His goal is the destruction of British agriculture to conform to the European Union's grand scheme. And the means to speed up the process fell right into his lap, in the form of an epidemic and a landslide victory, both giving him a mandate to continue this madness.

In order to guarantee that victory, Blair proclaimed the epidemic over early in May. But the Blair government has been charged with "concealing the fact that it is now killing more animals than at the height of the foot-and-mouth crisis two months ago" and is now expected to step up the scale of the slaughter.

F&M has already devastated Britain's livestock industry and tourism. And it's led to outright animal cruelty--not the kind that the rock group/animal-rights advocates The Smiths referred to when they sang "Meat is murder"--but real, inhumane treatment and abuse of animals, diseased as well as healthy, many of them about to give birth.

As the April 12 London Telegraph noted, because animals were quarantined and government refused to lift restrictions on their movement, "there are lambs dying in the mud, and lambs staggering around virtually unable to stand up…dying needlessly because they were being born in waterlogged and muddy fields rather than indoors. Other animals were starving to death after having eaten all the grass in their pastures…. They are out of grass because they have been in the same field for the seven weeks since this crisis began. They are having to be lambed in the dark with no services. They are being born in mud and puddles and are being killed by the hail and the rain…. The suffering of the animals is quite ridiculous…."

In other cases, animals being transported to their point of slaughter are in the late stages of pregnancy, going into labor en route.

Stated SPCA chief veterinary officer Chris Laurence: "Such animals must be humanely killed at the farm so that they do not have to endure the serious stress of being transported."

The outbreak of the F&M epidemic dates back to February 19, when a veterinarian spotted signs of the disease in pigs awaiting slaughter. The disease was confirmed the following day. It quickly spread to cattle and sheep throughout Great Britain.

Prior to that February date, Mad Cow disease (variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease) had been hogging all the publicity. Mad Cow is transmitted by consuming infected meat, and, when contracted, is invariably fatal to humans and animals alike, after a protracted, horrible neurological illness.

In contrast, F&M (Rhinovirus of Cattle) can only produce a mild, temporary flue-like infection with blisters when humans contract the disease (rarely) through skin wounds, handling diseased stock, or by drinking infected milk— but not by eating infected meat.

Yet F&M is a highly contagious viral disease of cattle, sheep, hogs, deer, and other animals with cloven hooves. In animals, the disease affects the hooves and the surfaces of the tongue, gums, and lips, causing extreme pain and loss of appetite. Even though the disease doesn't usually kill, infected animals become poor producers of milk and meat.

The virus can be spread by contact with infected animals or with objects contaminated by body fluids or waste from infected animals, by birds and other small animals, and by airborne transmission, especially under wet and windy conditions. Cattle can become carriers of the disease, and can serve as sources of the infection for up to eight months. The virus survives freezing, is not affected by drying at ordinary temperatures, and has a two-week incubation period.

The last major epidemic of F&M in Great Britain occurred in 1967 and it was responsible for the destruction of nearly half a million animals. But new patterns of farming have led to the protracted epidemic now facing Great Britain.

A 1998 U.N. report warned that an outbreak of F&M was all but inevitable: "Europe faces a growing threat of devastating animal disease epidemic. This is mainly the result of long-distance transport of animals and increasingly dense livestock populations…". But the only preparation made by the European Union (EU) and the British government was the creation of a maze of regulations.

In the 1967 outbreak, there were more farmers, farms were smaller in size, and fewer animals were kept in individual flocks and herds. But unlike the 1967 epidemic when animals were euthanized on the spot by a veterinarian with a handgun, and carcasses were buried quickly, today's EU regulations have made slaughter and disposal of infected animals much more complicated, costly, and time-consuming. Much of the red tape involves animal valuation in order for farmers to get just compensation, especially for rare breeds of livestock.

According to Ken Tyrrell, a former Ministry of Agriculture vet and a leading authority on the 1967 outbreak, "The virus is at its most powerful in those animals that have full-blown disease. It is very contagious and the longer they are left, the higher the risk of the virus spreading elsewhere."

During the 1967 epidemic, as the April 20 Telegraph pointed out, "It was possible for a vet to diagnose the disease and shoot the animals soon afterwards with firearms issued by the Ministry of Agriculture." Explained Tyrrell, "Vets know when an animal has got the disease and should be able to bump it off straight away after a brief discussion with a colleague at the Ministry. In the 1960s we had single-shot Webley Scott pistols and it worked very well."

However, as of February 1, 1998, all non-government possession of handguns was outlawed throughout Great Britain. Now, the Telegraph continued, "Special 'killing teams' and squads of contractors are needed to destroy herds and flocks once they have complied with a heavier tangle of red-tape," such as EU regulations specifying lab tests for confirmation of infection.

The suffering was graphically detailed by one slaughterman in the May 20 Telegraph. "He describes how his unit was ordered to finish off lambs by hitting them with a 'blunt instrument' or drowning them in a river. 'One of my mates…was detailed to stand by a pig which was giving birth; as each piglet was born and crawled away, he had to smash it with the back of a shovel.' Worst of all was having to finish off cows shot by slaughtermen. 'Some are still crawling around, others clearly still alive but unable to move. We have to beat them to death…. If people really knew what was going on I think there'd be a revolution.'"

Millions of healthy animals have been killed along with diseased ones in a "firebreak" zone around infected premises. In addition to rampant accusations of government incompetence and mishandling of the latest crisis, a great deal of controversy has arisen over the policy of slaughter-and-burn as a means of controlling the infection and disposing of carcasses.

There is another alternative: vaccination. But, as with all other aspects of the present epidemic, Great Britain is obligated to adhere to the EU's cumbersome restrictions and vaccines can only be used under special circumstances.

However, a story in the April 22 Telegraph revealed that the epidemic "would have been contained much more effectively if a vaccination programme had been launched at the start of the outbreak ... Scientists at Edinburgh University studied 60 foot-and-mouth outbreaks around the world in the past decade and found that a combination of slaughter and vaccination had proved the best way to control the disease."

Dr. Keith Sumption, who headed the research, noted that "The optimum time to do it was at the very beginning, probably in the second week, when we knew where the main outbreaks had occurred." In large-scale epidemics, Dr. Sumption found that slaughter-only policies allowed the disease to spread very widely.

Nevertheless, Tony Blair chose to adhere to slaughter-and-burn tactics that have left UK agriculture in a shambles, rather than ease restrictions that would have permitted livestock vaccination.

As Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, pointed out in response to the government's claim on April 19 that the epidemic was "fully under control," "If you bring the disease under control by killing all the livestock in the area it's a pyrrhic victory." After all, one could wipe out a measles outbreak in a particular city by killing all the people in the city, but that wouldn't be a real sign of progress for health.

Another lesson that ought to have been learned from the 1967 epidemic is that infected animals need to be disposed of rapidly. At that time, they were buried immediately in small pits. But because of EU groundwater regulations, incineration has replaced burial as the preferred method of disposal.

Yet British government scientists "have admitted they have no hard evidence that it is safe for animals with foot and mouth to be burned in the open…there is no guarantee that when infected animals are thrown on a pyre the virus is exposed to high enough temperatures for long enough to destroy it…concern focuses on the fact that the virus is contained in an animal's body fluids. These are released when carcasses explode in the heat of the fire, sending infectious material into upward hot currents. Any surviving virus could then be blown by winds for miles."

In fact, a report issued after the 1967 epidemic stated that, after the initial incubation period, virtually all new cases were caused by winds carrying the virus. In 1980, an F&M outbreak on the Isle of Wight was caused by a windborne virus from France.

As one would expect, the same mode of transmission emerged on April 8, 2001, when the Telegraph noted with alarm that the latest outbreak in the present epidemic was confirmed at a farm 40 miles from the nearest case: "The virus' biggest 'jump' since the crisis began. It came the day after the virus had made its biggest previous movement — 30 miles to the Scottish Borders." The British government had failed to account for air transmission of the virus, one of the lessons that should have been learned from the 1967 epidemic.

And with slaughter of healthy animals remaining government policy, the citizenry — both farm and city folk— has begun to realize that their government is as out of control as the virus is.

By April 15, the backlog of carcasses waiting to be disposed of reached 400,000. By April 23, the Telegraph reported that in Devon, more than 180,000 dead animals were lying in the fields and farmyards, "with the backlog increasing by 10,000 carcasses a day." A spokesman from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) said that the agency was "attempting to discover if a temporary storage could be found for some of the rotting carcasses, many of which have been on farmers' land for two weeks." A day earlier, the paper had noted that some 20,000 slaughtered animals "are awaiting disposal on seven farms in a single square mile" area.

Tony Blair, averse as he is to adverse pre-election publicity, had another trick up his sleeve to conceal the scale of the slaughter. Under a new government edict called the Waste Regulations 2001, Blair forced "waste management companies, under threat of criminal prosecution, to accept vast quantities of dead animals to be buried in ordinary landfill, much of this done at night."

By June 3, the number of infected premises had reached 7,900, and 3,191,000 cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats had been slaughtered.

Asked a National Farmers' Union spokesman, "What is the lesser of two evils: allowing small, on-farm burials, which was the preferred option after the outbreak in the Sixties, or allowing the carcasses to rot where they lie with all the environmental and health risks that involves?"

Which brings us back to the story of the epidemic's heroine, Phoenix. A few days after the calf's mother was slaughtered, Phoenix was found wandering among the dead. Her owner bottle-fed the calf and refused to let the MAFF team "finish the job," despite their insistence that "Phoenix has to die."

It was the perfect time for Prime Minister Tony Blair to make his grand entrance.

On April 26, the Telegraph proclaimed, "Phoenix Saved as Blair Changes Slaughter Policy." It noted that, "In a sudden change of heart, Downing Street said animals in farms next to infected premises would no longer be killed automatically," and Ministry of Agriculture veterinarians would be able to "judge each case on its merits following tests." According to the Telegraph account, a government spokesman "denied the move was a cynical attempt to wrest votes from the 13-day-old heifer, which became an overnight celebrity after surviving three attempts by vets to kill it."

Prime Minister Blair, like his hero President Clinton, is renowned for changing policies quickly in order to ape polling data. Civil libertarians have denounced the Blair regime as "focus-group fascism."

As the April 27 Telegraph observed, "Phoenix the calf enabled Downing Street to turn potentially the biggest public-relations disaster of the foot-and-mouth epidemic into a pre-election publicity coup for the Government." Kill tens of thousands of cattle senselessly, but save a lone calf, and demonstrate your "compassion."

When saving a calf is all a British politician needs to do to erase a national catastrophe, the days when farmers and vets were equipped with pistols and common sense seem long gone.

Blair perhaps thought his "rescue mission" could create a distraction from the announcement of Nick Brown, agriculture minister, who noted that millions of pounds were to be cut from farmers' total compensation payments.

With many affected farmers already planning on bailing out, this blow made it all but inevitable that agriculture in Great Britain would change dramatically and permanently.

That reality was validated by the Telegraph's disclosure on April 28 of Agriculture Minister Brown's vision of the future of farming in his country. According to the Telegraph, Brown "says the Government's far-reaching review of agriculture will radically change the lives and incomes of farming communities. Instead of being paid to produce surpluses of cheap food by intensive methods, farmers will be rewarded for maintaining the traditional landscape. They will be paid to graze sheep on hillsides, for example, build dry stone walls and plant hedges…."

In other words, farmers would be paid to be "custodians of the countryside" — not producers of food. They might run a theme park, with Phoenix as the star attraction.

If there was ever any doubt as to the British government's plans for the future of farming, it was erased by the announcement of the Agricultural Wages Board that the minimum wage for farm workers was to be increased by nearly 10%. According to the May 1 Telegraph, the decision will cost the industry approximately £86 million per year, "roughly six per cent of the total bill." And, warned economists, "it would increase costs, cause further job losses in the countryside and lead to greater imports of cheaper food from abroad." Declared Bob Fiddaman, chairman of the National Farmers' Union (NFU) employment and education committee, the ruling amounted to a man-made "disaster," and "can only worsen the dire situation faced by many surviving farm businesses and lead to further job losses."

As was clear to Lindsay Jenkins, in The Last Days of Britain, published just before the current F&M outbreak, "Britain has no control over any part of the farming process. Nor has any part of the British landscape escaped the diktats of the EU." As Jenkins further pointed out, "British farming, by far the most efficient in Europe and one of the most efficient in the world, is now in a desperate plight. It has been driven there not by the market nor by British incompetence but by the Brussels [EU] bureaucracy."

In the end, the F&M outbreak turned out to be a lucky break for the socialists in Brussels. But a virus is not easily controllable, and despite pronouncements by Tony Blair and the rest of his government that everything is "now under control," it ain't over yet.

One thing is certain. Unlike the mythical Phoenix who arose from its ashes in the freshness of youth to live through another cycle, the only things rising from the ashes in Great Britain today are loss of sovereignty, and regulation and environmentalism gone amok. Phoenix may well have been saved, but Britain's livestock industry and farming community have been sacrificed to the madness of Brussels.

And when the Brits find the prices in their supermarkets have gone as haywire as have our gas prices, they will have only themselves to blame.

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