New foot and mouth epidemic 'inevitable'

December 20, 2002

A new foot-and-mouth epidemic in the UK is "inevitable" and imminent, researchers at Cardiff University have warned.

The process that led to last year's crisis, which cost taxpayers about £10 billion and saw the slaughter of about 10 million animals, has started again, according to a report by experts at Cardiff's Law School and Centre for Business Relationships, Accountability, Sustainability and Society.

Unregulated large-scale movements of live animals, including cross-channel shipments - the cause of the 2001 outbreak - have resumed.

"This not only raises very serious animal-welfare problems but obviously constitutes a grave risk, which at present the farmer ignores," say the report's authors, David Campbell and Bob Lee.

Farmers are willing to run the risk of another outbreak because the government's agricultural policies do not require them to take out insurance but instead provide them with generous compensation in the event of an epidemic. They are thus insulated from liability for losses to others, such as the tourist industry, and to themselves, the report argues.

The report adds that the government's policies have created "a situation of moral hazard in which livestock-rearing practices are devised in disregard to the costs of disease control, because the costs are borne by others. The result is that animals are reared extremely intensively and sanitary measures have a low priority."

And it warns: "Unless farmers are made to internalise the costs of disease, including foot-and-mouth disease control, and devise their livestock-rearing practices accordingly, there is every likelihood that there will be another epidemic. We believe it is inevitable."

The report condemns the government's "hopelessly inadequate" response to last year's outbreak. It says the now-defunct Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food "had no reliable monitoring in place and was slow to identify the danger". It was then "slow to assess the epidemiology of the outbreak and impose measures to limit it".

The disease was eventually controlled, "but only because contiguous culling had become almost indiscriminate killing in disregard of the economic, human and animal-welfare costs".

The report argues that financial incentives are the best way to ensure regulations are adhered to.

"Effective criminal sanctions require an impossibly costly inspection regime and are unnecessarily draconian compared with the simple solution of making farmers insure against the risk of the disease," it says.

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