Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)




40.  Good job it was not the M1 at the time, they would not have got there.

  (Mr Allen) We can get round that with compromise and with discussion. Rigid science alone if you take it as its stands at the present says it should not be 20, it should be more like 50 days, which would tie up everybody. We have to get down what is operable on the basic farm in basic commerce and cut out the multiple movements. That is a word I do not use lightly "multiple" movements. Most movements farmers are involved with are the basically one movement, either to market or to somebody else. When you have multiple movements, as we found out last time, that is unacceptable. Also in the 20 day standstill it is actually the people who trade, the dealers and others, who can get round it, because they are moving a lot of livestock they rent a field here, rent a field there, rent another one here, put animals into it, put a 20 day standstill on, which means they there are holding and they can still operate, they are in a position to get round it where as the individual farmer cannot do that because he does not have the ability to do that sort of thing.

Phil Sawford

41.  One further point, if we have the technology and understanding of how the virus spreads then we cannot accurately pinpoint the source, we just say it came from abroad by some foreigners—I am sure that is not case—we never quite know where or how, would that lack of facilities or rather poor facilities, in the light of what you said are there sound scientific reasons why DEFRA needs to get involved in this whole area and develop their own scientific base to work out how this virus spreads? Are there any other of these nasties lurking somewhere out there? Should DEFRA take this on board?

  (Professor Sir Brian Follett) I think DEFRA should take it on board because animal health in this country has become a really major issue. Foot and mouth is just the third major disaster in 15 years and therefore I think at this stage it has to be the Ministry which says we have to change the way animal health is handled in this country, part of that is the vet/farmer linkage. There are many other things. I think we are moving in some ways in the Report to a point where in many of the recommendations here, yes, they specifically apply to things like exotic diseases but many of them apply generally if we are to raise the health status. My view is that I do not think there is really a long term future for the livestock industry in this country unless the health of the livestock is improved. I think DEFRA does need to understand how specific viruses go.

42.  At the moment we have the 20 day and the 30 month and the passports and a whole load of instruments to try and stop something that we really do not understand.

  (Professor Sir Brian Follett) I think we are using different things for different diseases. We cannot have one size fits all. What is broadly true at the highest level is that the precautionary principle says that if you can reduce the general amount of movement, particularly multi-movement of animals during peacetime then you will minimise the risks of spreading disease in the country, that is the precautionary principle against which I suspect DEFRA are currently operating.
  (Dr Mumford) Going back to your point, should DEFRA be investigating this in terms of research? It is worth appreciating that for foot and mouth there is a European Directive which allows only one institute to handle the virus in each country, so that work has to be restricted to Pirbright. The only other way of conducting it is to form collaborations with overseas countries where the disease is endemic and we perhaps do not exploit that enough. For other list A diseases there is a greater flexibility.

43.  We investigate the virus somewhere else as opposed to having the virus here.

  (Dr Mumford) Which has a downside because there are environmental differences.

  Mr Drew: I think the crux of where things went wrong was nothing to do with farmers in the true sense of the movement it was to do with dealers. My fear is we are no further on and until farmers eradicate dealers, and I know there is a role for people who cull stock.

  Phil Sawford: It is called cull.

Mr Drew

44.  I would do more than that. I could give evidence about some of the things that went on, I will be very careful, but we know there were things that went on that were unacceptable. You can have all of the science and all of the policies but if some people are going to go close to the wire in terms of not just legality or illegality but the ethics then effectively it is about risk and they know they are taking risks, how do you deal with that?

  (Mr Allen) There are dealers and dealers. I say that seriously, in the highlands and islands of Scotland their sheep finish up on the east coast of Yorkshire to be finished because they have to move. They basically deal with one man and he tries to do the job to the best of his ability in a responsible fashion. If you just regulate to cover somebody who is moving sheep like that you would take him out and you would have a welfare problem. That happens in other areas, the sheep move out of Lake District down into Lancashire and that often involves dealers. However, I do agree, as the Chairman pointed out, it is the multiple movements that are the critical issue. We are just getting sidetracked a little bit, and I would like to go back to when we opened the meeting, I think the critical issue is surveillance and the implementation of regulation that is already there. The big fault at the beginning of the last outbreak and what we have to avoid against is to make sure we have biosecurity and surveillance there to make sure we catch the disease at an early stage. The problem with this was that we caught it too late the last time and therefore the movement of animals became an issue. We do not know what the next infection might be. The important issue is having the intelligence, the security and the surveillance there to make sure we catch the disease as soon as possible, these others come into it afterwards and we have to tighten up, I agree.

Mr Jack

45.  I was going to ask you permanent on-farm biosecurity measures but I was rather chilled by the comments you made throughout remarks this morning which give an indication that at the moment we have a high level of ignorance as to precisely how the disease spreads. We saw a lot of emphasis on vehicle disinfection, people disinfection and people dressing up, changing this and doing that and I am beginning to wonder whether those were the outward and visible signs of doing something rather than nothing but they were actually ineffective or we could not say whether they were effective or not. Are we in a position where the idea of permanent biosecurity is for the birds until we know far more about how this disease moves from point A to point B?

  (Mr Black) What we have to understand first of all is that biosecurity is a new word and most people still understand that biosecurity is a disinfectant mat and a bucket of disinfectant at the end of the road, it is actually a huge subject. In the Report we talk about setting up a research institute, whether it be virtual or in a centre of excellence, to validate that topic and talk about what biosecurity is, because it involves all sorts of things like the testing animals, the vaccination of animals, isolation facilities, and so on. We do not fully understand how much good we did with mats on the roads, et cetera, et cetera, it may have been more psychological than actually effective. Again we are coming back to foot and mouth, but that applies to a lot of these other diseases. It should be good practice for farmers to have disease control on farms because there are viruses and bugs out there like BVD and some salmonellas that are much tougher than foot and mouth and can survive better than foot and mouth. If you take foot and mouth as a marker of what is travelling round the country all of the time there is a huge amount of disease moving round farms all of the time. What we are saying by discussion with the farmers and having these help lines in place is to have a continual control of disease on and off farms, it is going to be good for the farm and good for the animals but we have to understand a lot more about the whole subject that is biosecurity.

46.  If we are to make that term meaningful does that mean that the government of the day has to put its hand in its pocket and fund a very thorough piece of work to answer the questions which it currently cannot answer and devise the practical packages and measures to give us proper biosecurity?

  (Mr Black) Yes.

47.  Are there any estimates of what that work would cost?

  (Mr Black) To advise the vets of biosecurity means or to advise the farmers of biosecurity means?
  (Professor Sir Brian Follett) There is no evidence as to the cost of it but I do not see it as prohibitative, it is a fraction of what is likely to have to be invested to get a routine vaccine. These are not overwhelmingly difficult issues, it is a question of a focused research programme, much of which may have already been carried out, pooled together to produce the package you expect.

48.  Am I absolutely clear, that this work is not currently being done?

  (Professor Sir Brian Follett) I do not say it is not being done but it not being done other than in a fragmented way. As in so much of animal disease research in Britain it is fragmented, poorly led and needs a complete overhaul.

49.  That is a message which the secretary of state should take very seriously and act upon immediately in your judgment?

  (Professor Sir Brian Follett) We certainly say so. We do not think that research and development machinery for dealing with animal diseases, not just the exotic animal diseases but generally. It is well pooled together and we believe it needs an overhaul from top to bottom.
  (Professor McConnell) Biosecurity generally is about high quality animal health which I think the public deserves. It is just a part of everyday daily life that has to be applied both in the farms and downstream. If I give you an example, endemic disease in this country costs a 17 per cent loss annually of agricultural turnover, that is about 1.3 billion a year, that is equivalent to the BSE crisis almost every year or the cost of it. That is the cost of not having high quality, high health precautionary measures in place just to expand and maintain the precautionary base against animal disease, and that begins on the farm and goes all of the way to the laboratory.

Phil Sawford

50.  Can I take you up a road you would probably rather not travel, does this mean we have too many small players, too many small farmers, too many farms that cannot use isolation methods that do not have the money to invest in some of the systems we need to try and control viruses? Are we looking at a different industry to take forward the things you suggest?

  (Professor McConnell) You can look at some successful industries who have biosecurity as their number one, the poultry industry is a very good example. Unfortunately the livestock industry in this country, particularly in cattle and sheep, could not run on the model of the poultry industry, they do not work like that.

51.  The point I am making is the nature of the industry is probably one of the biggest barriers.

  (Mr Allen) I think you are quite right. We have forgotten one word when we have been talking about livestock today, when we were talking about some of the issues we are referring to livestock keepers, and that is quite significant because a lot of the livestock we are talking about are kept out with registered agricultural holdings. If you are looking as disease control you have to use the words livestock keepers. In the context of exotic diseases the next disease might move round on cats or on dogs and we have a problem there because we do not know where any of those are at all. We have a structure of agriculture which allows itself to fit into this category but I do not think there is any way we are going to get with it because we have to maintain the countryside in some way, from your smallest farmer with one acre to the 3,000—7,000 acre hill farm in the north of Scotland it exists and we have to try and cater for it.
  (Professor Sir Brian Follett) I think Mr Sawford you are fundamentally right, it is a characteristic of our nation that we do like to fragment things. We have a fragmented research effort with all kinds of different pieces of research, all using taxpayers' money I may say. It is not as if they are independent contractors, they are all using our money but they are fragmented. If you look across agriculture as a whole or go to the Don Curry Report, Don Curry says it very clearly, there is a lack of overall structure thus far. Of course we are really in some senses maximising it, the very fact that we now have two interim contingency plans in one island.

Mr Breed

52.  Just looking at what Mr Allen said about registered keepers, you recommend there should be a registration of livestock keepers and that they should all identify who their vet is and they should produce a health plan each year. I can imagine thousands of plans hitting somebody's desk. Can you explain why you think the production of an animal health plan on an annual basis is likely to improve the situation?

  (Mr Black) These animals health plans will be very variable. If some Good Life person has a couple of Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs they will have a very simple page which says, my vet is David Black and I understand these are the conditions that may affect my pig and this is what I am going to do about it. It can be a one page document. The point is there are a lot of people out there who are not registered, not experienced, livestock is not their main trade and they do not understand many of these conditions and diseases. What we are saying is a simple health plan from that can be developed right up to the multi species units that need a complex health plan to have all of these intervention points in place. It comes back to our surveillance, unless we understand and control where all of these diseases may be throughout the country then we are not going to be able to—

53.  I accept that. Merely producing an animal health plan and submitting lots of things you say you are going to do and comply with unless somebody actually then comes round and ensures that what you said you are going to do you are doing that creates a whole new sort of surveillance process and everything else. Have you gone into the sort of mechanics of how that works?

  (Mr Allen) It is rather like in the 50s and 60 when we were encouraged to produce and you went into development plans, there were schemes going round the country like the agricultural and horticultural development plan and you dealt with one man and you built up this concept on the farm. It is similar with disease control and biosecurity, you can develop that very easily with your local vet. It is part of good practice at the moment to have these drawn up and all we are trying to do is cement that it happens between you and a qualified vet, that you sit down and think about the year's health of the animals on your farm with very little extra costs. It is coming anyway through the European Union that you will have to deliver this. It is coming through Farm Assured schemes where then it will be just a tick box, as I said earlier, where you say you have delivered it. I think it is far better if it is an understanding between the practising farmer and his practising vet to deliver that. The other point involved a register. I know it is going to be difficult but anybody who was involved in areas where we were chasing foot and mouth in the last outbreak will know it is finding these animals that were on the hobby farms. We did not know where they were.

54.  I can understand that, so the principal surveillance will be done by the vet in that sense. You are not supposing to have DEFRA inspectors doing spot checks?

  (Mr Allen) No.

55.  Can we move on to illegal meat imports as such. A number of people in the agricultural community would say that the Government is far more interested in putting restrictions on them and their ability to operate in order to prevent spread of disease once it has got here rather than putting significant resources into ensuring that it does not even get here in the first place. You welcomed DEFRA's action plan back in March. You wanted the action plan on illegal meat imports implemented quickly. We have done our own particular report into it as well. Do you believe that there are any shortcomings or things within the action plan which are not there which you feel should be there?

  (Professor Sir Brian Follett) Some action!

56.  Yes, but, in other words, if all the elements were actioned, then you would be pretty happy? You say, for instance, it might be a good idea, as we said in our report, for health inspectors to have greater powers.

  (Professor Sir Brian Follett) I think there are some technical things associated with co-ordination of who runs the import controls, but I would have thought that a combination of what they have suggested, you have suggested and the EU has come up with then we are covering basically all things. That will lead us to reduce the risk of imports. That, as Commissioner Byrne pointed out, will not eradicate it, but it is another brick in this wall which is trying to bear down on risks.
  (Dr Mumford) I am not sure whether it is in any of the reports but one of the points that I am very keen to see implemented is that if you have surveillance information from overseas and if you go on amber alert for South Africa, is that then translated into more effort into surveillance of what is coming in from that particular area, otherwise the information coming in from overseas is somewhat an academic exercise. It needs to be part of the response.

  Mr Breed: If South African produce gets imported into Europe and gets transported around there, that is another problem.

Mr Martlew

57.  Do you think Mr Waugh from Heddon-on-the-Wall would have been top of the list for filling in these particular forms? Is not the reality that there will always be somebody who will go outside the rules? My worry is if we put in a plan like this we will be accused of more bureaucracy by the NFU who would still feel there will be an individual who would not abide by the rules.

  (Mr Black) The point with Mr Waugh is he did not have a registered vet and he certainly did not have a health plan. If you had some sort of legislation in place to say you must do A and B—

58.  But he was breaking the law as well because he was found guilty.

  (Mr Black) The rules and regulations were in place to deal with Mr Waugh, they were not actioned by Trading Standards or DEFRA or MAFF at that time.
  (Mr Allen) You are always going to get somebody who will fall foul of the regulations. I would reiterate as an example that the regulations that were in place at the time should have sent alarm bells ringing in December if not in November that there potentially was a huge disease problem here and they should have got on farm and sorted it because he had not been treating his swill for such a long period of time. As for the NFU objecting to more bureaucracy, if you are looking at developing this further, it is going to reduce bureaucracy because of the other issues I mentioned earlier of bringing it under one umbrella and stopping various different people coming on to the farm and doing it in that one relationship.

Mr Todd

59.  There is a temptation for people who were involved in the management of the outbreak to say, "Well, that is over and done with now. You can put all that data away and work out contingency plans and look to the future." You highlight the need to carefully examine the data that has been collected so far. You identify some likely failings within it and you suggest that each of the individual epidemics which made up the epidemic as a whole in the UK is examined. Is there any evidence that you have seen that that work is on-going?

  (Professor Sir Brian Follett) I am not sure. I think it is mixed and I do not think I have any hard evidence as to exactly what is happening. We certainly believe that the whole area of modelling and epidemiology has an enormous amount to offer to animal disease control as it already has done to human disease control. We used it in a very peculiar fashion last time in the sense that we suddenly had to drop in technologies and science developed elsewhere to try to see if they would apply and that in some senses needs now to be put to one side. That does not affect the fundamental value of the modelling and epidemiology. Two things really need to be done. First of all, such modelling and epidemiology is only as good as the data and therefore we need a thorough going analysis to work out what sort of data we require, and we list it in our report, and, secondly, we need an absolute assurance—and I hope your Select Committee can have some influence—that these data are available to bona fide researchers, and not just bona fide researchers in the UK because some of the finest scientists work across the world. This is how we can analyse from 2001, not how we can apportion blame for 2001; that is nothing to do with it. As to whether it is being done, there is no doubt that the United Kingdom as a country of scientists has a peculiar talent in modelling and epidemiology. It goes from the main leaders like Bob May and Roy Anderson, who were very active in developing much of this 10 and 20 years ago, through to some very much younger people now who are developing good groups. I think we need to see them supported. I understand that the Wellcome Trust is currently investing considerable amounts of money in stimulating veterinary epidemiology. I have to say I am delighted they feel able to do so because in some respects it surely should have been DEFRA that should be doing it.

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