Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 20-39)



  20. When do you expect those to be available?
  (Mr Scudamore) We are hoping to finish the preliminary work this week. We will be meeting to produce an agreed statement of what the consensus is on the way the outbreak will develop. That is to look at the overall development of the outbreak. The problem is that we have the seeding of the whole country with infected sheep. That is quite apparent if you look at maps of the country, where we have the disease all over the country apart from those areas that do not import sheep. North Scotland, West Wales and East Anglia tend not to have big movements of sheep. The first difficulty we are facing is that we have the national sheep flock which has potentially infected sheep in it. We do not know where all of them are. We are seeing spill-over of those sheep either into more sheep or into cattle, so we are seeing sporadic outbreaks in different parts of the country due to the sheep. We are also seeing in other parts of the country where there are a lot of sheep movements through the infected areas that it is continuing within those sheep. What appears to be happening in Devon and Cumbria, where the seeding was from the sheep, is that the disease is continuing within the sheep but also has spread to the cattle. What we are seeing there is local spread within the local areas. The way that will be happening is not by the movement of the sheep which seeded the problem in the first place but by spread from farm to farm, because the virus is easily spread by people or animals. If you have infected animals in one field and animals in the next field, the disease can spread from one field to the next.

  21. Is that airborne virus spread?
  (Mr Scudamore) No. It can be with that distance but the pig is the animal that produces large amounts of virus. Statistics suggest that one pig can produce the same amount of virus as 3,000 cattle. Clearly, if there are a lot of pigs, they will produce large amounts of virus. If there are a lot of pigs and the weather conditions are ideal, including the wind speed, wind direction, topography and geography, that virus can spread long distances. In ten infected pigs it could go 50 kilometres if the weather was absolutely correct. Cattle and sheep do not produce large amounts of virus in a similar way but, because of the way they graze and their greater lung capacity, particularly with cattle, they will absorb the virus and inhale it. Those two species will become infected from the plumes but in their own right they do not produce plumes at all. If you had ten cattle or sheep infected, it could probably spread one kilometre at the most and generally less than one kilometre. In most conditions, cattle and sheep do not pose a problem, but there are occasional conditions when it might spread. The distance is nil compared to that with pigs. That means that where we are getting the local spread in Cumbria or Devon it is either coming from the sheep and spilling over into the cattle or it is cattle to cattle due to next door farms or people movements. For example, if someone has animals on one farm in a field and he goes down on his tractor, there is that sort of connection. To summarise, it has been seeded throughout the country by sheep. We are seeing sporadic outbreaks in a lot of the country where it is popping up in cattle. In Carlisle and Devon, we still have a sheep problem but it is spreading into cattle and there is local spread.

Mr Paterson

  22. Does the strain of this virus have a particular predilection for sheep? Had this strain been identified on any site in the United Kingdom before 19 February?
  (Mr Scudamore) It had not been identified in the United Kingdom before the date confirmed in the pigs in Essex. It does not seem to have a predilection for sheep but it does seem to have a predilection not to cause major disease in sheep. In sheep, it might be completely unapparent. The sheep might be infected and capable of infecting other animals but there has been no apparent disease seen by the farmer. Secondly, it appears that it can be quite transient in sheep. The disease can get into the sheep flock and infect a number of sheep and then it is not apparent any more. Again, it can be missed. Thirdly, in some of the sheep flocks that we looked at in the early days, there were very few sheep with disease lesions. In a big sheep flock, there were only five per cent that had evidence of the disease as shown by blisters or bleeding blisters. The problem we are really facing is that it is not always apparent in sheep. It can be missed by farmers but the sheep appear to be capable of transmitting to other sheep and to cattle. The second problem is that if the disease moves into a big flock of sheep there might be only one or two sheep that move in. Those then affect a few more sheep and affect a few more sheep and it is only when a large number is affected that you see anything wrong. When we then look at those animals, we can see animals with very young lesions that have just developed the disease and some animals which much older lesions who have had it earlier.

  23. In early January, shepherds in Galloway were reporting extraordinarily high losses of lambs amongst sheep. As I understand it, MAFF's animal health officer did investigate why there was this high level of abortion. Was that anything at all to do with foot and mouth disease?
  (Mr Scudamore) The first evidence we had of foot and mouth disease was with pigs in Essex. Sheep have a lot of other conditions which can mimic foot and mouth disease. One of the commonest is serious foot rot. If you look at the situation in sheep before 20 February, you could have flocks with a lot of sheep in them which were due to serious foot rot. There are quite a lot of conditions which will cause abortion in sheep and lameness in sheep. To differentiate those from foot and mouth disease is quite difficult.

Mr Borrow

  24. Have we any estimate of the number of breaches of the restrictions in movement of animals that have taken place and whether those breaches of the livestock movement restrictions have added to the problem or has it been an insignificant factor in spreading the disease?
  (Mr Brown) I do not have a comprehensive figure, by the very nature of the question. What is done is illegal and we only know about it if we find out about it. There have been cases of people being caught moving animals illegally and there have been prosecutions. I cannot give an estimate. Do not do it. There is no surer way of spreading the disease around than moving animals that are vulnerable to the disease unlicensed.

Mr Öpik

  25. There are clearly two kinds of livestock movement. One is to slaughter and the other is within a farm unit which can often be quite disparate. How do you strike the balance between the need to contain the disease and the need to allow those two forms of movement?
  (Mr Brown) This is very difficult and effectively it is a micro management question. The over-arching principle is that the animals cannot move. If the disease is out there and incubating, it has to be held still. Within that policy, we want to get as much of the livestock industry functioning and the supply chain functioning as we reasonably can, consistent with the over-arching imperative to absolutely control the disease. We have devised the local movement schemes which are essentially designed to sort out local anomalies, which is why the distances involved are relatively short. If a farmer has sheep in one field which he has grazed and he wishes to move them across the highway to a linked holding, that requires a licence but nevertheless it is probably in the best interests even of the management of the risk that that movement takes place. On the longer haul from holding directly to slaughter, there have to be very strict controls, as there are. The third aspect to your question is a vexed question of those farmers who have animals in winter quarters and want to either bring them to the home farm for lambing or move them for other agricultural management reasons. We are trying to do what we can to help with that but there will be some animals, particularly those in the protected zones, that cannot be moved for disease control reasons, even if they do not have the disease. All I can do is open the welfare scheme. I believe it is the right thing to do and we are carrying the cost of the movement. The Government is paying for that and we are paying a proportion of a notional value of the recompense for sheep to farmers.

  26. You are aware that farmers feel somewhat punished by not getting the market value, given that it is not their fault?
  (Mr Brown) If I gave them the true market value now, it would be less.

  27. What is your view about the obligation to bring the animals to the closest abattoir available for slaughter?
  (Mr Brown) The priority is to control the disease, to get the market working as close to normal circumstances as we can and not to provide further distortions. It is not that last journey that is the disease problem; it is making sure that the journey is what it is supposed to be and there are no stop-offs on the way or other anomalous incidents that would risk spreading the disease.

  28. As you know, there was an outbreak at an abattoir in mid-Wales when a farmer took infected animals from his farm to that abattoir. Is there anything that you can do to tighten up the procedures to reduce the risk of that happening?
  (Mr Brown) The animals are inspected by the farmer before they board. He signs a certificate to say that they are disease free. In the case you cite, he seems to have missed 23 of them and when they arrived at the abattoir and were inspected by the vet he noticed the foot and mouth disease. Essentially, this does rely on the cooperation of the whole of the supply chain, including those who are making any declaration. The declaration has a meaning in law.

  29. Moving on to collection centres, what was the nature of the veterinary advice that precluded the establishment of collection centres?
  (Mr Brown) In order to make sure it is done in a way that will not compromise our disease control measures, it is resource intensive. One of the difficulties we face is the number of vets. I cannot divert veterinary resources from disease control work. As soon as it is possible to open up collection centres, I will want to consider it but at the minute all the veterinary resources we can get our hands on are in the front line.

  30. Will you anticipate handling pigs, sheep and cattle differently when you move to collection centres?
  (Mr Brown) It is a good question because the industries are structured differently. The pig sector in particular works very much like a production line. Animals move through the production process; they grow at a very steady rate and so many are taken away each week directly from the larger holdings to the abattoir. It is a problem for the smaller holdings.

  31. One farm I mentioned specifically because of the degree of danger of infection is about three kilometres from an outbreak near Chertstoke. There are 2,000 pigs on the farm and the movement restriction means that the pigs which cannot be stopped from growing are now reaching sexual maturity and can create aggression within the farm itself. Because they are not allowed to take these pigs off the farm, they are in an almost impossible position and it might lead to them putting the animals out into the fields. How can we square that circle?
  (Mr Brown) If the animals have the virus, they will be quarantined and killed. If they do not and they are under a movement restriction, you are right to say that, as with the outbreak of classical swine fever in East Anglia, the animals reach an age for the market they are bred for and, as they grow older, they will lose value. If their welfare is compromised, it is an option to sell the over-age and overweight animals into the welfare scheme. That requires a veterinary certificate from the farm vet—it does not have to be a ministry vet—to say that their welfare is compromised and they can go into our welfare scheme. That is a commercial option for the farmer. He may choose to manage the problem differently. What he cannot do is to compromise the state's disease control measures.

  32. I see this as a viral time bomb, being so close, but could I ask if you would help me to resolve that particular issue?
  (Mr Brown) On the specific issue, it is difficult for me to comment further. I will ask the chief vet once we have finished here to look at the specific circumstances and to see if it is necessary to do something on the basis that the animals are potentially dangerous contacts.

  33. What kind of limits do you intend to impose in disease-free areas and will inter-farm movement be allowed in those areas which are considered disease-free?
  (Mr Brown) The Department's strategy is to regionalise the problem as soon as it is absolutely safe to do so but the overriding priority is disease control. The reason we have thought about a smaller number of animals, primarily sheep that have gone into the disease-free areas through the hands of the dealers who have had contact with infected animals is to try to make a preemptive strike on the relatively low risk that these animals pose. In other words, we intend to keep the disease-free areas disease-free. Once we are certain that we have achieved that, it will be possible to look at the movement restrictions within the disease-free areas—in other words, clean area to clean area; I do not mean from the north of Scotland to the west of Wales; I mean within the disease-free areas—and to look at one way movement out of the disease-free areas to an area of higher risk. What it will not be possible to permit is the movement of animals the other way round from an area of high risk to an area that is disease-free. It is my hope that with the sporadic, early outbreaks in other parts of England it will be possible to have those areas declared free and if there has been no further outbreak for us to relax restrictions there as well. This has to be done in a very methodical and cautious way. We have learned the lessons from 1967, when the movement controls were relaxed and the disease broke out again.

  34. Would you consider introducing the 21-day movement restriction in the disease-free areas?
  (Mr Brown) Movement restrictions for animals that move for commercial reasons are under consideration within the department, as are other control measures as well. Once I am satisfied that we have something that is in the form I am satisfied with, I do intend to put it out to consultation. I do not intend to just make decisions and put them directly to Parliament. I think it is right that there should be a discussion. I intend to listen to those who do not have the mainstream view as well as those who do. I did discuss it with the leaders of the different farming unions yesterday. They were all very much of the view that layover restrictions as a permanent feature of the way in which the supply chain works was something the Government should be looking at.

Mr Todd

  35. What is the incubation period for this virus?
  (Mr Scudamore) As with any disease, there is a range. The range will be 1 to 14 days, but there are variations within that and they are affected by the numbers of animals, the amount of virus and all the other issues which decide whether an animal goes down with the disease. What we found with the pigs in Essex is that pigs moved into the abattoir and they came into contact with other pigs. The shortest time was 36 hours. We generally find it is between four and seven days with this outbreak but it can be up to 14 days, depending on the dose and how the animals are infected.

  36. What is the infectivity within the incubation period?
  (Mr Scudamore) Generally animals will be infectious for a number of days before clinical signs develop, but the maximum infectivity will be when they have got large numbers of blisters and when they are excreting the virus. That can continue for up to five days after the development of the disease.

  37. So when we move animals which appear to be disease-free there is of course a significant risk that they may be carrying the disease and be infectious. Is that a reasonable statement to make?
  (Mr Scudamore) That is a reasonable statement to make but it leads on to the reason why we allow animals to move. When we put the complete ban on movements we stopped everything but we then had to look at the various movements that might be allowed to take place to allow animals to go to abattoirs or to move for other reasons. We did a number of risk assessments which I hope we will be publishing. They are ones we have got at the moment which we based on advice from the World Reference Laboratory at Pirbright. If you look at all the risks of collecting those animals from the farm, putting them in a lorry and taking them to an abattoir, and if you look at where all the potential risks were, then if you look at the risk management you could introduce, such as no animals moved onto farms for 21 days and farmers to examine the animals and various other management factors you could put in place, we concluded that those movements could be permitted provided they met a whole range of requirements which are in the licence. So they go from the farm to an abattoir direct, not stopping anywhere. They are inspected by the farmer and they are inspected by the TVIs. There is a risk with everything we do but the assessments we did, on balance, showed that they could be allowed.

Mr Paterson

  38. Could I ask one question on detail. If there is a holding with two or three sites which may be three or four miles away, does that count as one case or does it count as two or three cases?
  (Mr Scudamore) What we would do with those is when we go to the farm with the disease on it we would look at what contacts there are with that farm and other farms and we would assess whether those contacts are classified as dangerous. In other words, we ask are the animals on the other farms potentially infected with the foot and mouth virus? If the answer is yes, we remove them as "dangerous contact" herds. So we have 394 confirmed cases and there are 341 dangerous contacts, so those would be herds with a very high risk of having the disease, being in the same ownership or the same animals moved on. We remove those and when we remove those we examine the animals and it is only if we find disease in those animals that we confirm it.

  39. Is one holding counted as one case? If the holding has two or three areas around it also taken out as being contact herds, are we now saying there are twice as many cases?
  (Mr Scudamore) No, we are not. If a holding has got three separate farms we could well take the one with disease out and the other two as dangerous contacts.

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