Examination of witnesses (Questions 216-239)|
MONDAY 23 APRIL 2001
216. Minister, thank you for agreeing to come
to see us. We know you have to get away to Luxembourg to the Council
of Ministers and we have agreed that we will get you on your way,
5.30 I think is the agreement, and we will make sure we will follow
that. It is nice to see you, and Mr Scudamore. We wondered whether
you had been inadvertently buried, as it were, because Professor
King appeared to be doing all of the media stuff and the Defence
Secretary appears to have been very much on our screens recently.
We were just frightened that some terrible fate had overtaken
you. We are glad to see that you are alive and, presumably, as
well as can be expected in the circumstances.
(Mr Brown) Thank you for those good wishes.
217. Do you want to say anything to start with,
because in the past you have done?
(Mr Brown) Because of the Parliamentary recess I have
not been able to update Parliament, as I am trying to do on a
regular basis. Perhaps it would be useful if I bring the Committee
up to date and make some introductory points about vaccination,
which is the main purpose of this hearing. Perhaps I can begin
by providing an update. The total of confirmed cases as at 2.30
today stood at 1,440, that is an increase of five from last night's
total. There were nine confirmed cases yesterday. I have said
on previous occasions that this is an exceptionally serious outbreak
and that eradication will be a long haul. That remains the position,
but after two tireless months, there is now evidence that efforts
are bearing fruit. The continuing downward trend in the daily
number of cases (from a daily average of 43 per day in the week
ending 1 April, down to 16 cases per day in the week ending of
yesterday, 22 April). Following serological testing of all of
the farms in the relevant areas, we have now been able to lift
the infected area status from six areas entirely (Northamptonshire,
Leicestershire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire and North Somerset). I
expect others to follow in the days and weeks ahead. In other
places, based on the latest veterinary risk assessments, we have
been able to scale back the area affected. Both developments have
released farms from the restrictions associated within infected
areasover 9,000 farms by last night (Sunday). With effect
from today, farmers within the infected area will, under licence,
be able to sell stock
to abattoirs within those same areas. Government
policy has at all times been based on the best scientific and
veterinary advice. The advice remains that we need to pursue the
24/48 hour cull vigorously. I know the Committee are well aware
of the debate surrounding vaccination. The vaccination strategy
would complement, not replace, culling, which must continue until
the disease is eradicated. The Government is considering a cattle
vaccination strategy in North Cumbria, and possibly Devon, because
of the specific circumstances in each case, but any vaccination
programme would need to be supported by a substantial majority
of the farming community, by the veterinary profession, by the
wider food industry and by consumers. Discussions are continuing,
but I have to tell the Committee that the necessary support for
this policy is not yet there and the case for vaccination recedes
as the number of daily cases declines. We have made good progress
towards clearing backlogs on both slaughter and the disposal,
and only in Devon is there a backlog of animals awaiting disposal,
there are over 100,000 animals. In all other areas any backlog
has been cleared, or will be within the next day or two. We are
working closely with the Department of Health to take account
of public health issues. In every case we are using disposal routes
which are the safest and most effective in the circumstances.
Over the last fortnight we have also devoted much time to addressing
the implications for animal welfare and to solving the problems
before Easter. Farmers now have several options available when
faced with welfare problems. We have issued over 52,000 licences
for animal welfare movements and relaxed some of the conditions
for licensed programme operators to give greater flexibility on
the ground. We are getting on top of the backlog of applications
for livestock welfare disposal schemes and are involving the RSPCA
to highlight serious welfare problems and help us prioritise cases.
The situation will be further eased by the lifting of restrictions
on movement to slaughter in infected areas, which I mentioned
earlier on. I hope to make a full statement to House on Thursday,
including the report of the outcome of this week's European Union
Council of Agricultural ministers and bilateral discussions with
my Dutch counterpart. There are no easy options for eradicating
foot and mouth, nor is there any workable vaccination strategy
that removes the need to cull the disease out. I hope that is
helpful to you.
218. Thank you for that. If I can make a preliminary
comment, you said you were scaling back the infected areas, which
we are very pleased about, but there is still the problem of farmers
knowing when this has happened. The Government is still terribly
dependent on websites. I have to emphasise, in my constituency
farmers are not electronically geared-up. You very kindly scaled
it back in my constituency but nobody knows. Some farmers do not
know whether there have been infected sites or not. There must
be a way of communicating with farmers, which is not just posting
on the website.
(Mr Brown) With respect, Chairman, I do not think
this is generally true. If it is an issue in your constituency
we will look at it. The whole purpose of having representatives
of the NFU inside our regional headquarters is to make sure that
we are liaising properly with the farming community. Issues such
as the one you described are picked up very quickly and we try
and get the information out by telephone if we cannot do it any
other way. If there is a local issue I will look at that.
219. There are just two or three questions.
I would like to start with vaccination inevitably. About a fortnight
ago you very kindly laid on a seminar for Members of Parliament
at which the chief protagonist was Doctor Donaldson. The whole
thrust of that was extremely hostile to the case for vaccination.
In a nutshell he said, "Vaccination in the teeth of an epidemic
does not work". That was the heart of what he had to say.
Then, if I may say so, Mr Scudamore seems to have slightly disappeared
off the screen and Professor King emerges. A little while after
that Professor King tells us there is a very strong case for vaccination
and the Government is minded to vaccinate. The next day Professor
King tells us that the epidemic is firmly under control. You come
before us today and you say that the case for vaccination is receding
and, in any case, vaccination is an adjunct to slaughter, not
an alternative to slaughterwe may have to probe what that
meansyou can understand why there is a bit of confusion,
(Mr Brown) Not really. The Chief Scientist is heading
up the Group.
220. We are going to see him on Wednesday.
(Mr Brown) That pulls together the work of four separate
research organisations and it is designed to inform the Government
of the strategic approach to the outbreak by modelling its likely
progress. One can only get data out of these mathematical models
when data is put in. So Professor King's group have been able
to give us very helpful advice on how the epidemic is progressing
and also what strategies are necessary to bring it under firm
control and to extinguish it. He has made it very clear that the
key intervention is the 24 hours report to slaughter time and
has urged us to make that our priority. The second intervention,
which was urged upon us right from the beginning, and I think
is right, is to make sure that we take out dangerous contact animals
from the contiguous premises as quickly as we can, and as far
as the contiguous premises are concerned, to aim for this within
the 48 hour target. That is the advice. Professor King has also
advised on a vaccination strategy. He is not recommending vaccination
primarily for disease control reasons. As I understand it, the
primary reason for recommending vaccination is that it would enable
some animals, particularly cattle in Cumbria, and potentially
Devon as well, to live rather than die.
221. How does that become adjunct to the slaughter
(Mr Brown) It is not a replacement for the slaughter
policy. As the Committee will know, the conventional approach
to the use of vaccination strategies in the disease outbreak is
to put a ring round the area of infectivity, and that is not really
a strategy that is applicable in the circumstances in which we
find ourselves. The problem is outbreaks from existing areas of
infectivity rather than a steady rolling-out of the area of infectivity.
The second use that could be made of vaccination is to damp the
disease down while it is culled out. However, either of these
strategiesusing it to reinforce a ring-fence around the
area of infectivity or using it to cull out both require
the animals to die. Of course farmers are very resistant to this,
for perfectly understandable reasons. They describe it as a death
sentence over their animals. What we have had under consideration
is an alternative strategy, which is vaccination in the most densely
infected areas, with the intention of letting the vaccine last
for a year, depending on the strength of the dose that was given,
or being reinforced after six months. That is an option that would
be open, with the intention of the vaccine wearing out over time
and the animal living on, of course, not at the risk of infectivity
because the other infected animals would have been culled out
and the virus would no longer be present.
222. You have been talking about vaccination
for a long time but it was always in the context of the subsequent
slaughter of the vaccinated animals. The change is that this would
be a measure which would make that unnecessary, but there would
be for a short term penalties, presumably, of the status of the
herds, the status of the region and possibly the marketability
of the product of the animal.
(Mr Brown) That last issue is absolutely crucial.
It is true to say that the examination of different vaccination
strategies, whether to have one or not at all, has moved with
the nature of the disease outbreak itself. We are in a rapidly
changing situation. At the beginning of this I do not think anybody
would have considered a vaccination strategy necessary. As the
spread of the disease and the intensity of it, particularly in
Cumbria and Devon, became apparent, the different vaccination
strategies were examined very carefully indeed. For the strategy
I have just outlined to succeed there are a number of things that
are required, as I said in my opening statement. The most important,
of course, is the support of the farming community. This is a
very difficult issue. I regard it as essential to have the support
of the farming community and, indeed, the industry to try and
eliminate the disease. It would be a much harder job if we were
fighting amongst ourselves rather than fighting the disease. That
support from the farming community for the vaccination strategy
is just not there. There are a separate set of concerns, every
bit as important but, perhaps, not as much discussed in the public
domain. That is the support of consumers for products from vaccinated
animals: primarily dairy and also, of course, beef from the suckler
animals or, indeed, animals that are being finished for slaughter.
223. Thank you. If I may ask one more question,
this is to do with the relationship between the prices for the
welfare scheme and the market prices. You have introduced a scheme
today whereby animals can go from infected areas to slaughter
within the infected areas and for human consumption. Again, I
am afraid, there is a gap of about ten days between the announcement
of the intention to introduce the scheme and it becoming available.
There is a long gap there. I have talked to some of the meat processors
and abattoirs in my part of the world. The problem is, if you
take sheep, if you send your animals to slaughter for human consumption
they are getting about 235 pence per kilo dead weight. If you
are sending them to the livestock scheme they are bulked up, weighed
together with wool, water and anything else which happens to be
attaching to them, and that is equivalent to 275 pence to 285
pence live weight, so what incentive have farmers got, other than
backlogging the welfare scheme, to send animals for slaughter
for human consumption when you have this sort of social security
network of the welfare scheme, which you did warn at an earlier
stage could be priced too generously and could become not a scheme
of last resort, but a scheme of first resort?
(Mr Brown) It is not the Government's intention to
create that. I am certain we must not do so. You are right. There
are particular difficulties in the sheep sector. The issues are
not as acute in pigs or in cattle where, by and large, we have
managed to get the trade back to working. As I said before, it
is unfair to say to some form of normality, under strict licence
and control. I am meeting my Dutch counterpart tomorrow morning
at 9 o'clock to discuss welfare schemes and relationships between
the different types of welfare schemes, particularly those that
involve taking the animals to slaughter. We will see what comes
of that. The Government is keeping the rates that we pay very
carefully under review. I do not want to say much more about the
rates, that is market sensitive, except to say that it is absolutely
not the Government's intention to establish a false or an alternative
market. Let me also say, the welfare scheme is not intended to
operate as an alternative market. The Government's routes for
the treatment of animals whose welfare is compromised is as follows,
firstly to look at whether or not the animals can be safely moved;
we have several licensing schemes which are designed to facilitate
that. It cannot be done in all cases, for disease control reasons,
but where it can be done that is the first route that should be
approached. The second route is to see if the animals can be managed
where they are, and that is something that we also ask the farming
community, along with their own veterinary advisers, to examine.
It is only if that cannot be done that animals are eligible for
entry into the welfare scheme. A private sector vet has to sign
a form which says that the animal's welfare is compromised.
224. It is not difficult to get that.
(Mr Brown) There has been a backlog for the scheme.
We have asked the RSPCA to work with us as professional advisers
and to advise on the prioritisation of cases.
225. Thank you.
(Mr Brown) It is not simply saying, "I would
rather go to the Government scheme, thank you very much".
226. Trading standards have to administer the
new movement/slaughter scheme opening today, is that not right?
(Mr Brown) The scheme is open today but people have
been prepared for it because they knew it was coming.
227. It is administered by county trading standard
(Mr Brown) Yes, it is.
228. When were they given details of the scheme?
(Mr Brown) I cannot give you the day when
229. I can give you an answer of when they were
not given it, which was by 4 o'clock on Friday afternoon. When
I was attempting to extract the information to assist a farmer
in my area, the Derbyshire Trading Standards had not received
that information and were not able to proceed with any movement
authorisations for today.
(Mr Brown) There is nothing new or novel about this,
they should have had the details.
Mr Todd: They advised us they had not yet been
issued the details and LACOTS were still in discussion with the
Chairman: North Yorkshire said the same.
230. That was something which was confirmed
by Helene Hayman's office on Friday afternoon. It was desperate,
last minute stuff which meant that those who wished to take advantage
of this scheme, and many farmers do, were at a considerable disadvantage.
(Mr Brown) I would not want to make too much of this.
After all, this is a permanent change which is intended and the
area of infectivity will get smaller and smaller as we are able
to clear areas of disease. I regret that has happened. After all
the arrangements I was putting in place, and I believe are in
place and should be in place, not only replicate what is happening
in the unaffected parts of the United Kingdom but are confined
to these now large joined-up zones of infected premises. The purpose
of it is within zones that are more compromised than Great Britain
as a whole, is to ensure the move from farm holding to abattoir
a journey which in the circumstances, as long as it is
properly controlled, ought to be perfectly secure.
231. It does highlight this difficulty that
there is a long lead time between Baroness Hayman announcing the
new scheme for 23rd and actual mechanisms being in place to do
something about it, which meant that although the scheme was open
as of today, frankly, it would be very, very difficult to obtain
anything as of today.
(Mr Brown) As I said before, in the context of our
other schemes, the whole purpose of announcing it in advance is
so people can prepare for it and get arrangements in place.
232. That is exactly what my farmer was unable
to do. She attempted to book an abattoir for today, to sort out
transport and was unable to do so because trading standards were
not able to say exactly when they would be able to okay that particular
(Mr Brown) That point has been put to me. Clearly
that was not the intention. In any case, I would not make too
much of it because the purpose of the changes announced is that
they are permanent, and the areas move from being infected to
being cleared-up areas and, then, uninfected as we are able to
put the clear-up regime in place.
233. Can you explain the paradox to me that
conventional farmers, in the main, do not want a vaccination strategy,
whereas organic farmers seem to have signed up to a vaccination
strategy, unless I have it wrong?
(Mr Brown) The Soil Association are advocates of a
vaccination strategy, they believe it is right and they say that
dairy animals that meet their own accreditation standards could
perfectly be vaccinated and used for organic standard products,
including milk. The Organic Farmers' Association in Scotland are
passionately opposed to vaccination. All of the devolved authoritiesremember
they have a disproportionate amount of the United Kingdom's livestock,
for reasons we all understandare all firmly opposed to
the vaccination strategy. The leaders of all of the farming unions,
without exception, oppose a vaccination strategy, although I think
the Country Landowners and Business Association is slightly more
open, and no doubt you can ask them that for themselves. The reasons
are essentially twofold. The unions believe that a vaccination
strategy compromises trade, and by that they do not mean international
trade, they are worried about the impact on the domestic market
and that they will, therefore, pay a price for it in the market
place at best. Second, they worry that a vaccination strategy
will enable the virus to live on, because vaccinated animals can
act as carriers, and they believe that such a strategy might perpetuate
the disease rather than accelerate its coming to an end. If a
vaccination strategy was to be carried forward by the Government,
all the principal farming unions argue that the vaccinated animals
should be quickly culled out rather than be allowed to live on.
That is their case, as I understand it. The alternative case is
that in an area of intense infectivity one could vaccinate the
animals once, heavily, and enable them to live on as the rest
of the outbreak was brought firmly to a complete conclusion, and
then allow the vaccine to run out. In other words, for the animals
not to be protected in a year's time. There would then be no need
to protect the animal because, of course, the disease would have
been brought to a conclusion. That is the case for using a vaccine,
in other words to put the culling of animals on hold, for the
animal to live on and continue its normal working life. It is
an attractive option but given the uncertainties, in particular
the difficulties in forecasting consumer response and, therefore,
retailer response, and given the overwhelming hostility of devolved
authorities and devolved farming unions, the National Farmers'
Union and, indeed, others in the supply chain, it seems to me
that there is going to be a lot of resistance to it as well.
234. I am trying not to play Devil's advocate
here. Given the reaction in this country of many consumers to
meat hormones, has any serious research been done actually admitting
to the fact that this meat has come from vaccinated stock? Is
that likely to be something that consumers are going to rush for
or are they very much against it?
(Mr Brown) There is market research on this. It tells
a fairly consistent story. The retailers have said to us very
firmly that the product should not be differentiated in the market
place. The advice from the Food Standards Agency is there is no
food safety reason why either meat from a vaccinated animal or
milk from a vaccinated dairy herd should have to be differentiated
in the market place. That is the food safety advice to the Government,
as I understand it. The retailers are saying, very strongly, that
if a product were differentiated then consumers would think that
the product from a vaccinated animal was somehow of a different
order. Let me emphasise it again, it is not in scientific terms,
as I understand it, but that is what they believe the consumer
perception would be. The Consumers' Council in Scotland called
for differentiation of the product and independent labelling.
I think the Consumers' Association in England has just called
for differentiation, without saying labelling, although it is
difficult to see how else this could be done. There is focus group
work which suggests that something like 40 per cent of consumers,
when prompted, would like to see products differentiated in the
market place, in other words to exercise a choice. Whether or
not there are any rational reasons or health reasons for doing
that, they still wanted the choice. It is this that leads many
retailers to be nervous about vaccination, although I ought to
make it clear to the Committee the retailers have said to us that
they will support the Government in the policy that we adopt.
235. If I can move on and look quickly at the
rationale for vaccination and where it seems to have come from,
I do not know if I am wrong on this, is the threat of the turn
out of stock in the coming weeks. Whereas we can be seen to be
on top of it, certainly in my part of the country, in Gloucestershire,
there is always an added risk where animals are going out on to
grasslands, and so on. Can you, perhaps, explain to us where the
vaccination strategy is in relation to that stock?
(Mr Brown) The risk is less. As far as the vacated
grasslands are concerned, the virus needs a host. The prospects
of it surviving for a great length of time in an open field are
pretty remote. The risk, of course, is that when cattle are turned
out of their winter quarters on to grassland, they will mix with
sheep that may still be carrying the virus and then you will see
an upturn in the cases amongst cattle. There are pretty obvious
things that can be done to reduce that risk: keeping the animals
housed for longer, making sure that they are grazed separately
from sheep and not on the pastures of sheep that were recently
vacated. There is other advice on bio-security arrangements given
to farmers and, indeed, I have asked that it be given to farmers,
particularly in the hotspots, and made more generally available.
It has to be said that in the areas of most intense infectivity
we have also culled out a large number of sheep. From memory,
in the North Cumbria area of something like 1,900 livestock holdings
in the infected area we have culled out 1,600 there are only 300
still holding sheep. That is my understanding from memory. Those
figures are very broad. It does paint a picture that the risk
is less than it might have been thought to be if we were at the
start of this outbreak.
236. What we are talking about here is two parts
of the country, Cumbria initially, and maybe Devon, and what would
be the success, or otherwise, of bringing in a vaccination strategy.
Clearly you have done a risk analysis, are you limiting it to
two parts of the country? What are the sort of things you are
saying to farmers, which is obviously measuring risk, successive
or otherwise, which would mean that the Government would go along
(Mr Brown) It would mean that something like up to
95,000 cattle in Cumbria would have the prospect of survival,
arguably, enhanced. That is effectively the case for it. The truth
is that the farming community is divided. The leadership of the
main farming organisations are opposed and are supported, I think,
by the Policy Committee of the National Farmers' Union. Many individual
farmers support a vaccine strategy, provided certain assurances
can be given. Those with valuable dairy herds, provided they were
certain that the milk once pasteurised was not going to be compromised
in the market place, see the attraction of a vaccination strategy.
Those with valuable pedigree herds, by and large, oppose a vaccination
strategy and prefer to rely on bio-security arrangements, very
tough bio-security arrangements, for their own animals. This is
because they believe they are specialist and very valuable products
and will be compromised in the market place by vaccination. Whether
that is a reasonable belief or not is not for me to say, but this
is the belief that is held by farmers, and it is, after all, their
business. They seem to oppose a vaccination strategy. The issue
is divisive within the farming community and the bottom line is
this, without there being some consensus or near to a consensusyou
will never get an absolute consensusI think it would be
very, very difficult, indeed, to force a strategy in. Remember,
feelings are running pretty high anyway. It has been a terrible
thing for the livestock industry, particularly where the outbreaks
have occurred. Very hard decisions have been made and debates
are taking place daily about the difference between the interests
of individual farming businesses and the interests of the livestock
farming community as a whole, in relation to the cull in particular.
People see the case for it in general but always hope that the
specific policy, which is a tough policy, will not have to be
applied to them. To inject yet a new area of dispute into what
is a difficult situation is, I must say, I think wrong and would
probably not help matters.
237. What about rare breeds? Is there a logical
case where you are talking about breeds that clearly may be in
some danger of being lost?
(Mr Brown) This is an important and a separate question
and there is a distinction between special breeds, in particular
the hefted sheep that work the hills and are territorial, and
the breeds that are truly rare. The advice I have had from the
National Sheep Association, from John Thorley, has been very clear.
He does not want sheep vaccinated. He says that very, very strongly,
indeed. Is it possible to devise a strategy for managing special
breeds, like the herdwicks, there are some examples right across
the country, without using the contiguous cull? Yes, it is. We
are looking very carefully, indeed. There is a meeting which the
Parliamentary Secretary is taking today to look at these strategies.
The strategy that I find attractive, although it is not for me
to dictate (it has to be done in discussion with others) is where
animals are territorial and are extensively farmed we leave them
on their territory and then test them when they come down in the
autumn. Of course if they have the disease they will have to be
culled out, but it is quite possible they will not.
238. It would be quite interesting if the virus
had gone through some of the fell sheep.
(Mr Brown) It is more likely to do that with adult,
hardy fell sheep than it is with pigs or dairy herds. The disease
does react differently with different species. The main impact
that it has on the breeding problem of sheep is that it causes
them to abort, the mortality rate is something like 80 per cent,
which is a pretty serious compromise in breeding sheep.
239. As I understand it, you are not going to
touch the sheep at all.
(Mr Brown) That is not decided yet, but that is the
strategy I am attracted to for the hefted flocks that are extensively
farmed on the fells. Where they have a territory that is discrete
to them, the risk of them spreading the disease outside their
own territory, with them being extensively farmed, is of a lesser
order than that from more intensively farmed sheep.