Gordon’s solution for the Afghan crisis: a Common Agricultural Policy for poppy!

Posted in Afghanistan, agriculture, Defra, farming, Gordon Brown, Mad politicians by Deputy city editor on November 10, 2007

Never mind the army, send Defra to Helmand province.

Gordon Brown, the prime minister whom we are repeatedly told is brilliant, has let it be known (see all newspapers) that he has a new solution to the Afghan problem. It is to institute a system of agricultural subsidies to encourage farmers to diversify from the production of poppy. This will bequeath to Afghanistan a proven system for managing agriculture that has been such a success in Europe.

As a client of Defra, I thoroughly applaud this idea. The senior management of this government department should be sent to Afghanistan at once. Starting with the chief vet. The executive of the National Farmers Union could accompany them, to offer their colleague farmers advice on milking. (Milking the system, that is – not cows!) And harvesting. (Harvesting the subsidies, that is – not crops!)

This is not, by the way, remotely like my own plan to save Afghanistan. Which is that we should simply buy all the poppy and turn it in to bio-diesel.

Defra ignored warnings of biosecurity failure at Pirbright

Posted in Defra, epizootics, farming, FMD, foot & mouth, Foot and mouth, vaccines, virology by Deputy city editor on September 30, 2007

Dans ce pays ci, c’est bon, de temps en temps, de tuer un amiral pour encourager les autres. The execution of Admiral Byng.

The Sunday Times which normally annoys me more with every passing week today produces an almost extremely good piece* in which it is demonstrated that warnings were given more than a year ago of a dangerous biosecurity situation at Pirbright and these were ignored by Defra itself as well as the Institute for Animal Health and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. In any system in which officials and ministers were held remotely accountable for grotesque dereliction of duty, those responsible would be shot. They have probably cost the country £300 million. To save £50,000 on new drains. Read The Sunday Times and weep.

*Almost because it does contain a glaring error – which is, however, immaterial to the conclusion. For details see the always reliable Warmwell.

Remind me again: why are we not vaccinating?

I do not go to Defra press conferences and they probably would not let me in the building. Besides, the sun is shining and we are behind on the haymaking. But perhaps one of the zombie hacks in attendance at La Reynold’s next performance could briefly bother to ask the chief vet why animal owners are not allowed to vaccinate against FMD at their own expense? They could ask her if it is true or false that vaccinated animals can be differentiated from infected animals. And after she has explained why owners like Sheepdrove should not be allowed to vaccinate, even at their own expense, they should ask her to disclose Defra’s own vaccination protocol. If Defra is finally forced to vaccinate will they then insist on slaughtering vaccinated animals? If so, why? They should ask her to release the minutes of the stakeholder group meetings and to disclose who the members are. I ask because I really, really would like to know.

The news from Dorking is not great as I have a pig over there… and a lot of people coming to lunch. Can anyone tell me where I can source a giant marrow, to feed 100?

The Guardian’s estimable Matthew Taylor is back for more live news blogging here.

It is on Matthew’s blog that I see the chief vet has disclosed that we are now within a 7-day period when it is possible to vaccinate, although no decision has been taken to do so:

12.00pm: Debby Reynolds says that Defra believes the foot and mouth outbreak may now be contained and that the risk that infection will spread outside the affected area is “very low”.

She told a press conference that day seven of the outbreak was a critical day, as it was the first time a decision could be made to vacinate, but – for now – there will be no vacination of animals.

Still no news on the third suspected outbreak in Dorking – outside the protection zone – though the farmer is confident that his calves are suffering from a pneumonia infection and not foot and mouth.

Can someone help me understand the significance of seven days?

The NFU is insisting today that they are “not against” vaccination. This is in a letter attacking “smart Alec” journalists (I presume I am among their number) and includes the curious claim that “we are not against vaccination.” This really won’t do. The NFU have been hysterically against it for years. When have they ever been for it? Under what circumstances would they urge vaccination? Have they advised Defra or shared with Defra any opinions on the use of vaccination at present? This denial of the NFU that they are against vaccination is slippery and disingenuous as well as brazen and arrogant.

Compassion in World Farming who are my near neighbours in Godalming have proposed a very sensible “vaccinate to live” policy which I am waiting to hear the NFU endorse.

10 top things about foot and mouth

Happier days at Pirbright: The Surrey County Vaccine Farms

The 10 top things about FMD 2007.

10. Never mind the disinfectant, send the whitewash. A dramatic improvement in government media/presentational skill, mirrored by no raising of the game by editors, compared to 2001. See 8, 7 below.

9. Scientists are often psychotic, in the clinical sense meaning they have lost touch with reality. Any reality. Ground reality. System reality. Media reality. The award goes to Sir Brian Follett for his sagacity in the Sunday Times: “The reason we slaughter animals is because, in island countries, it works. We can keep the virus out.” A healthy debate in the bioscience community about vaccination would be welcome but it is so odd that those who obstruct vaccinations use arguments that are simply ludicrous and false.

8. Journalism in Britain is quite dramatically terrible as anyone can tell you when they observe the coverage of something they know plenty about. The absence of scientifically trained journalists is very apparent as it was in 2001. Rolling news channels by far the worst – torrents of drivel, 24 by 7. This is the syndrome that we saw with the media in the run-up to the war in Iraq. A dependence on authority to timetable events and establish the agenda, ignoring all contrary evidence or burying it on page 94. The BBC is consistently mediocre.

7. The media tropes are identical. Terrible disease. Tragedy for farmers. A threatened cow named Mabel in a petting zoo. The editors cover every big story by habit. This is why they prefer stories that “come back” so they can order the clips and cover them like last time. A dirty media secret is that editors do not like anything too new – they don’t understand it and have no precedent to inform their decisions.

6. Mediocrity of civil service. By which I mean the the glamorous chief vet who frankly wasn’t that hot, though she will now get a K. Not as sinister as Scudamore but she did everything she could to keep the approach NFU friendly, and I predict the vaccination kits will not be used. She pretended vaccination is an option while never intending to use it unless someone put a bullet to her head. So far, she’s got away with it. I think it’s a cynical tactic. I exempt the local field Defra office in Surrey who have distiguished themselves by being actually human. It has been my own experience as the owner of a registered farm (currently on the very edge of the surveillance zone) that the worker bees at the local Defra office do try to be helpful, despite the insane orders they receive from headquarters.

5. NFU more digusting than ever and why they are taken seriously is a disease of public policy. Literally. The government is required to consult them under a 1947 Act passed by a Labour government that idiotically thought they were empowering a union. What we have, despite recent reforms, is a monster in which not all members even get to vote, and the last five bosses have been knighted. This is a corrupt relationship in the sense of mordant decay. It produces terrible public policy. They are so unbelievably slippery and unconvincing. They are probably reading this wondering whether to sue me but some one is reminding them of MacDonalds.

4. Internet has dramatically improved networking and communications for us “troublemakers” who object that government policy is unscientific, brutal and disgusting. But while the networks are activating quickly, frankly we lack real political clout. We do not have a clunking great fist. The challenge is to convert our command of the facts and superb intelligence into meaningful pressure. I admit this is a tough problem when our democracy is so intangible, and note that it is a problem not unique to this issue.

3. This time around there is some interesting potential for lawyers. I imagine there are going to be some rewarding issues of liability and indemnity to fight about. This will pay for some very beautiful houses in France and a lot of very good claret.

2. Pirbright should be closed and the entire operation moved to a rocky island off Scotland, preferably.

1. Gordon Brown has been bloody lucky. So far.

This is my best guess at the moment. If the outbreak gets much worse then this list becomes inoperative, of course, and I will have to do it over.

Matthew Weaver is back today in The Guardian. Not to be missed. Ditto Warmwell. Rapidly improving Sheepdrove blog has good piece on “vaccinate to live.”

Dial 999

Call the cops! There’s been dirty work at the crossroads. Something nasty has been spotted in the woodshed.

In its Initial report on potential breaches to biosecurity at the Pirbright site, 2007 the Health and Safety Executive “confirms” Pirbright as the source of the FMD virus. As reported here on Saturday. You would have to be very dense not to have figured this out already.

Wind and water are unlikely vectors, says HSE. The great flood theory advanced by the glamorous chief vet is a problem because, er, the water flows away from the farms and towards Pirbright. And the air filters seemed to be working. Not that everything looked honky-dory, if you read between the lines. It seems Defra is responsible for regulating the FMD virus whereas the HSE is responsible for other oversight, so here are two new questions: (1) how are/were these responsibilities co-ordinated, or were they, and (2) how and who at Defra was discharging this responsibility? If this person exists, their reports must be disclosed. I suspect the buck here actually stops at the desk of the glamorous chief vet. Here is another lovely picture of her:

So, the suspect vector is human. Acting either negligently or criminally. A specific human, as I proposed two days ago? There is “chatter” that laboratory people may have had a number of improper contacts and have violated employment contracts prohibiting these. But that there is one Prime Suspect. “Presentational” management of the HSE ensures we have a document to deconstruct that has been deliberately designed by the government’s finest spin doctors to be as opaque and non-committal as possible.

There are various potential routes for accidental or deliberate transfer of material from the site, says HSE. As a statement of the blindingly obvious, this is a classic. And then this fascinating couplet:

We have investigated site management systems and records and spoken to a number of employees. As a result we are pursuing lines of inquiry. Amazing. Incredible.

Release by human movement must also be considered a real possibility. Further investigation of the above issues is required and is being urgently pursued.

The polished blandness of this, redacted by Sir Humphrey in person, tells me this is Whitehall Speak for: “Oh, shit!” There is obviously a lot going on that we are not being told, although I promise we shall find out. Just some initial thoughts. “Various potential routes” means more than one. “We are pursuing lines of inquiry” confirms they have one or more suspects.

So much for the vaunted biosecurity, then. And so much for the government’s hope that this could all be quickly blamed on Merial labs. That HSE have not immediately done so is suggestive, if not conclusive.

So, Pirbright is a potential crime scene. A couple of lard-arsed coppers lounging around the front gate (as seen on all TV channels) seems an inadequate response by the Surrey constabulary.

Round up the usual suspects!

Another crime scene is the newsrooms of the national media who are blundering about oaf-like on this story. The word “vaccination” was banned from the BBC 6 o’clock national news program yesterday. Sky has a very pretty girl outside Pirbright who knows the square root of fuck all about FMD and would struggle to define or even spell epizootic. Sky has a medical correspondent who seems to be getting around this, but their continued reliance on the NFU as an authority is perverting their coverage and making them look ever more naive and stupid. The BBC as one might expect is slavish to official sources.

The newspapers meanwhile print tosh as today’s unsigned Guardian panel on vaccination shamefully demonstrates. The Guardian has had a good blog on this for a couple of days but the Whitehall staff are conduits and the paper has not yet really hit its stride. The Telegraph is keen. The Times is wildly unreliable; their reliance on official sources and leaks too obvious, the suspicion of spin always too close.

I am working on a list of the 10 top things about FMD as I am told lists generate enormous numbers of clicks (and like all bloggers this is the subject that obsesses me most, as well as knowing how many readers I have in Albania). Please send me your nominations. An early candidate for the top most stupid thing is from Sir Brian Follett in The Sunday Times who sagely declares: “the reason we slaughter animals is because, in island countries, it works. We can keep the virus out.” This is pretty delusional, isn’t it Sir Brian?

Updating at 10.03 a.m.: Le Monde has just arrived with a brilliant Plantu cartoon illustrating a story that declares there to be a “Pénurie mondiale de lait: les prix vont monter.” The French government, says the paper, is going to seek an adjustment of milk quota to meet demand for milk and milk products which is now outstripping supply in Europe.

Updating at 12.05: Hooray! Matthew Weaver’s blog is back in the Guardian.

Hooray again!!! Sheepdrove is back.

15.00: Sky continues to produce the worst sort of commodity journalism with painful absence of producers who understand the science or the ground reality. To the dichotomy of ground reality versus system reality there is the third dimension of media reality which is completely detached from either! The imperative of 24 hour TV is that powerful authorities are capable of manipulating it almost all the time. Sometimes, an “event” can disrupt this control but usually the authorities will maintain their overwhelming influence on the definition of the narrative. Only independent and authoritative journalists can challenge this and even so they are limited in what they can do. This is why I read the media to know what’s in the media, but not to discover what is actually happening.

Vaccinate now – cull the NFU

I fear that one of Surrey’s finest herds of cattle is currently being exterminated. The herd of Aberdeen Angus has a distinguished pedigree but yesterday a couple of heifers seemed to have minor symptoms of lameness and the response seems to have been to kill them all. (I hope I am wrong and am doing more checks – but it is confirmed that they are killing more animals.)

Update: The herd being culled has been identified and is not the one I initially feared. More on this later. I still inclined to the view that this outbreak can be contained – but only if the government acts now to deploy its most effective weapon.

Waiting for animals to develop symptoms and then killing them is less effective as a means of preventing the spread of this illness than immediately ring vaccinating the affected area. The Dutch know this. The immunologists know it. It is rejected in Britain by a producer’s cartel who have created a situation where the taxpayer indemnifies them for their business risks and mass slaughter of healthy animals for cash is the raison d’etre of their business.

If the government will kill all the animals and pay for them then it saves all the costly business of feeding the beasts and selling them on the open market. Never mind that some do not want their animals killed, because they are used for milking, or for smaller-scale production aimed at local markets. Or that most of the animals killed are healthy. Or that even animals with foot and mouth can make full recoveries. Or that it is safe to eat vaccinated meat. And that tests can distinguish vaccinated animals from diseased ones.

In Britain this cartel is represented by the ill-named National Farmers Union which is not a union but an annex of the still deeply sinister Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. This perverse relationship has profoundly damaged the British countryside in the past and threatens to do so again.

The NFU agribusiness cartel spent yesterday demanding slaughter using the code words “stamping out” to describe taking healthy animals and killing them in a field, a process to be followed by the dispatch of large checks. And the horror is that once again the NFU is getting what it wants, popping in to Downing Street, appearing next to the chief vet at Defra news conferences, and being treated by 95% of our moronic media as the only authentic spokesman for the countryside.

So, we are back to slaughter on suspicion and the killing of dangerous contacts. No disease even needs to be proven. And the indicators of scandal continue to shoot into the red zone.

There turns out to be a history of biosecurity failures at Pirbright. The place is falling apart and a hugely expensive refurbishment project is supposed to be starting now. Yet only now is a serious independent examination getting underway of the biosecurity at Pirbright.

Oddly, this strategic national laboratory seems to exist without the slightest oversight by anyone, as far as I can tell. I doubt that Waverley borough council has a clue how to regulate class 4 biosecurity laboratories. This statement is not correct. As a later story makes more precise, Defra seems to be responsible for some of this and the HSE for other parts. It is still rather opaque how this surveillance has worked in practice and the evidence suggests it has not worked at all.

It seems that Pirbright have just received planning permission for all sorts of schemes but none of this has been covered in the Surrey Advertiser as far as I can tell, nor would it be, it not being the dream of estate agents to sell costly mansions on the doorstep of a hazardous biochemical research park.

So here we are and after years of arguing for a scientific approach to disease rather than a commercial one in which an illness is elevated to an economic crisis, the situation is the perfect scenario for vaccination. The specific virus is known. The vaccine is in stock. There is currently just one cluster of disease hence a ring vaccination scheme can be implemented with high confidence.

Not vaccinating is more than negligent it is stupid and vastly increases the chance this disease will spread. I suppose the NFU doesn’t really care because the suits who run it will just get more and bigger checks, and they never see the animals, anyway. I sggest that an NFU “member” who disagrees open his books.

Small farmers are ignored by the NFU (although it takes their money, persuading them by its clever marketing that it is an authentic countryside voice.) But of course these “country” members are entirely unrepresented when it comes to the big decisions.)

The stupidity of journalists like the one on CNN yesterday who repeated the lie that vaccination hides the disease is very probably attributable to the mendacious briefings offered by the government, the NFU and the NFU thugs and fellow-travellers who control certain Internet news groups (such as U.K. Business Agriculture, the nastiest place on the net).

These people conceal their real interests and character-assassinate those who have advocated putting a scientific approach ahead of the compensation cheques. It is a scandal that farmers get compensated for illness. Nobody else does. It is a scandal that the NFU has exercised a veto on policy. It is a tragedy that Gordon Brown cannot see any of this. You do not need to be a vegetarian to know that killing a child’s healthy pet goat is wrong. Or that individuals should have the right to choose vaccination for their own animals, in preference to a disgusting policy of exterminating precious animals, domestic or commercial, on the whim of some vet (another unjustly deified profession).

The entire annual meat export trade is worth less than one block trade in the city of London. British agribusiness, such as it is, is actually pretty feeble, and pretty often vile (who is for a Turkey from one of Bernard Matthew’s sheds?) When are we going to get real about agriculture and stop allowing privileged producers to raid the Treasury?

I live in the country and  drink at the pub with people who farm. We are making hay in our meadows right now. Many of these farmers are friends. But I don’t ask them to send me a cheque when I have writer’s block. If they are worried about foot and mouth they should buy insurance, or vaccinate. Why is this a problem?

The calculation of ministers, armed with their new media skills, is that what the public doesn’t see, will not upset them. Hence the rush to keep the helicopters out of the sky. The BBC and Sky news had already self-censored the most graphic images of the last slaughter in which the Woolford cattle were shot down side-by-side, one by one in a makeshift pen. The cowardice, ineptitude and ignorance of the 24-hour news channels is a subject for continuing discussion. A hare-brained blonde on Sky explained they had censored their pictures to spare us distress. This, apparently, is news judgement at Sky – we will not be shown the truth, so that we may be spared distress. Only journalism rivals politics for its hypocrisy.

Anyway – no danger the viewers shall be distressed, the new air exclusion zone means all further images will be censored.

I am still somewhat confident this outbreak may be limited in size – even though there are serious questions when it really started. In a report on the OIE site the glamorous Debby Reynolds has apparently reported that the “Start date” was 29/07/2007. The 29th of July? But that was the Saturday before the Thursday evening when “symptoms were reported to the local Animal Health office”.

“Is this a mistake – or were symptoms actually noticed five days earlier? It matters,” notes the always on-target Warmwell, another battle-scared veteran of 2001!

The government is running out of time to show they have really learned any lessons from 2001.

Notably, Abigail Woods, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Imperial who was brilliant in 2001 at exposing the lies of the NFU and their lackeys, has returned to the fray in today’s Guardian, here.

I was travelling today and am now returned. I hear Sky News has once again covered itself in shit. The problem with Murdoch’s media is not their transparent self-interest but their mediocrity.

Check frequently with Warmwell for news updates.

Excellent Guardian FMD blog here run by Matthew Weaver, journo who may just “get it”. Matthew is doing a great job tracking the news. Indispensible.

The good, the bad & the ugly

Posted in agriculture, bovine, cattle, Defra, epizootics, farming, foot & mouth, sheep, vaccines, virology by Deputy city editor on August 5, 2007

I told you so yesterday afternoon and today all newspapers confirm that the FMD outbreak was a consequence of a biosecurity failure at the government’s own animal health laboratory.

The most searching and independent investigation is now required into the circumstances, although it may not lead anywhere. I have consulted my microbiology consultant at Cambridge who points out that biosecurity is never a matter of preventing a virus escape but merely of possibly delaying one.

It is in the nature of these viruses that they are sneaky. Prof. Brian Spratt of Imperial College has been appointed by Defra to head an inquiry into biosecurity at Pirbright. We need to know much more about terms of reference and potential conflicts before it can be accepted that this is a satisfactory approach. I would like to know that the police are involved, for a start, since Pirbright is potentially a crime scene.

A very initial thought: this outbreak may not be so bad, despite the damning and bizarre circumstances. Defra was faster to stop animal movements. The farms around Pirbright are pretty small and movements fairly limited anyway. So far there’s no evidence infected animals have been through the livestock markets.

If this was, say, a case of a lab worker running shoulders at the pub with a cowman, or a delivery vehicle stopping off at Pirbright, picking up the 01 BFS67 virus and dropping it off at the farm around the corner, and given the relatively small number of ruminants and especially pigs in the neighbourhood (often not much more than pets), this outbreak could be contained quickly.

It would be sensible to ring vaccinate now but I can’t see Defra letting this happen. So they will slaughter probably only a few hundred animals and get away with it. Still, there are plenty of open questions.

Terrorism is bound to be raised as a hypothesis. I’m very sceptical that there is a cell of Islamic veterinarians behind this, notwithstanding the supposed Glasgow doctor plot.

Cock-up and carelessness and inevitability seem more probable causes. Pirbright let an antique FMD virus out the door, which merrily and predictably infected cattle in an almost adjacant smallholding in Surrey. Or perhaps it was not Pirbright, but a commercial lab that seems to have established itself at Pirbright. It would be good to know who is responsible for biosecurity at this complex.

So, the presumption must be the virus release was accidental and/or negligent rather than criminal. Although criminal cannot be excluded.

A more inconvenient truth about Pirbright is that it is the wrong laboratory in the wrong place. The American equivalent FMD lab is on an island and answers to the Department of Homeland Security. Putting an virology lab next to the A323 might seem a counter-intuitive arrangement.

We need to know much more about Pirbright and the Institute for Animal Health, the quango that operates it and its current relationship with Defra. The annual report is here. The IAH claims to be “advancing, safeguarding and improving” animal health whereas in fact it has recently accomplished something else entirely. The commercial relationships of the IAH are also pretty opaque. To what extent had the IAH turned Pirbright into a vaccine factory, operated by a French pharma company? These are things we need to know.

What is the government strategy? We need to know whether they will again adopt a hateful and disgusting slaughter of healthy animals to protect the meat export market, which at a few hundred millions a year is an irrelevent proportion of Britain’s international trade.

I fear that Defra will again find excuses not to vaccinate and will instead slaughter on suspicion, hoping that this time they can do it more discreetly. Also, the law has been changed now so nobody will be able to resist without commiting a criminal offence themselves.

The spin control is already better. Debby Reynolds, after her lengthy Hollywood career and retraining as chief vet, is less obviously sinister than her predecessor although she is not a natural media performer. I was not impressed by her press conference performance on Saturday or that she recognises full and frank disclosure is vital to the interests of the rural community and the nation.

(Another spin control: Helicopters are now banned from recording the scenes of slaughter. Defra says this is to avoid causing “panic” in the animals but of course it is actually to spare the authorities from being broadcast at their dirty work. The animals in this case live in Surrey, where the sky is always full of helicopters anyway, and not just in Surrey, but almost next to Farnborough airport.)

We need to hope the media does better. The vaccination issue seems much more alive this time than it did at the start of the last outbreak. Reporters must also learn to recognise the NFU for what it is – an organisation representing the biggest and dirtiest commercial farmers, whose business is industrial production and subsidy farming.

More updates through the day.

The latest Defra release is here.

FAO note specifying biosecurity standards for such facilities as Pirbright is here.

Defra’s Pirbright Lab suspect in FMD outbreak

Posted in agriculture, bovine, cattle, Defra, epizootics, farming, foot & mouth, ovine, Pirbright, porcine, vaccines, virology by Deputy city editor on August 4, 2007


It is a virus strain consistent with that found in laboratories, Defra says. A new exclusion zone includes Pirbright. The story is moving fast. But this disaster almost certainly originated in the government’s own FMD laboratory.


The Pirbright Laboratory of the Institute of Animal Health is the leading suspect as the source of the virus in UK’s ongoing FMD outbreak. The IAH is a quango sponsored by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). It’s “clients” include Defra, the Department of Health, the Department of International Development, and a number of international organisations. Biohazardous research and training is commonly performed at Pirbright including a diagnostics course 16 – 27 of April 2007 including ample receipt and preparation for FMD virus/antigen/genome detection; use of cell cultures for FMD virus isolation; ELISA for FMD virus antigen detection; preparation of primary calf thyroid cells for use in diagnosis; RT-PCR for FMD virus genome detection; FMD virus antibody detection by liquid phase blocking ELISA, solid phase blocking ELISA, virus neutralisation test and Cedi test FMD virus strain characterisation.

The laboratory is practically adjacent to the infected premises in the current outbreak and inside the 10km surveillance zone.

According to route mapping software the distance by road is 8.5km but as the crow flies it is closer to 5km. The Pirbright lab is somewhat south of Pirbright so the distance may be even closer.

If confirmed as the source this would represent a disastrous biosecurity breech by the government’s leading epizootic research establishment.

The laboratory is a world reference centre for and has major responsibilities to the Office International des Épizooties (OIE) and the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) for the diagnosis of diseases in an emergency. The diagnostic services are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The list of diseases for which diagnostic services are provided includes FMD and it is known that all known strains of FMD are held at Pirbright on a reference basis.

Here are two more questions: (1) If there has been a biosecurity breech was it deliberate or a mistake? (2) Given that FMD has long been considered a potential biological weapon, are the police involved in the investigation at Pirbright? (If not, why not?) The refusal to state the viral strain implicated does not bode well for official transparency.

Mean fields: foot & mouth redux

Posted in agriculture, bovine, cattle, Defra, epizootics, farming, foot & mouth, ovine, porcine, vaccines, virology by Deputy city editor on August 4, 2007

STOP PRESS 1: Defra Chief Vet Debby Reynolds (!) said at a press conference just concluded that she has asked Defra’s own Pirbright FMD lab in Surrey to review its biosecurity arrangements! This is a most peculiar disclosure and implies suspicion that virus in Surrey outbreak may have escaped from Defra’s own lab! It is evident that journalists at this press conference were the same clueless zombies who covered this so badly last time.

STOP PRESS 2: At same Defra press conference the malign continuing influence of the NFU was cleary demonstrated. An NFU spokesman was permitted to share the podium with the chief vet and spout NFU propaganda but of course there were no representatives from the very large rural interests not represented by the NFU. This is a very bad sign. NFU has an economic interest in slaughter. Note to Gordon Brown: these guys are NOT your friends. Cut them off at the knees.

QUESTION RAISED ANEW BY (1) above: What is the FMD virus strain? Why are we not told? They have had plenty of time to determine this. Could it be this is a strain currently found only at Pirbright? Or not so bright…

INTERESTING FACT: Distance from infected premises to Pirbright: 5km. Now isn’t that one hell of a coincidence?


The last time foot and mouth disease swept the country in 2001 it triggered mendacity, stupidity, senseless waste and venality that it is painful to recall. The big beef farmers represented by the NFU wept crocodile tears as their herds were slaughtered and subsequently cashed compensation cheques for millions of pounds.

The government response was a shambles. The vets ignored their professional oath and slaughtered animals they knew to be healthy. Animals were seized for slaughter despite this being clearly illegal. (The government later changed the law and now the vets can kill whatever they want, whether it is diseased or not.) Hefted sheep and pet goats – all were killed although they were perfectly healthy.

With the Prince of Wales berating him (pace Alastair Campbell) Tony Blair rushed to take personal command of the situation but not for the last time, found that the levers of power he imagined to exist in Downing Street are not actually connected to much.

In the Sunday Times I revealed in the first week that foot and mouth is not a serious disease and that animals that catch it usually recover. The disease is easily controlled using vaccines that are cheap and easy to administer. I interviewed the minister in charge of what was then the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, finding an amiable buffoon named Nick Brown, who was shortly afterwards demoted.

I discovered that there was no serious foot and mouth contingency plan although in North America vets and agriculture officials rehearse epizootics constantly.

The ministry was seized with a mentality that seemed grounded in the digging for victory schemes of World War 2. Modern science played no part in the ministry’s ideology to “stamp out” this benign disease by means of an unimaginably destructive, environmentally disgusting and costly policy of mass slaughter.

These reports in The Sunday Times stirred a tidal wave of opposition to the slaughters and it was also one of the first mass uses of the Internet in Britain to rally opposition to a government policy. Tony Blair was even forced to delay elections. The fury and authority of the opposition subsequently resulted in the ministry being closed down, although much of it was unfortunately reborn within the new Department of Farming and Rural Affairs.

The ultimate cost of this wretched affair was, I estimate, £20 billion; the government figure of a mere £8.5 billion doesn’t count the collateral damage to tourism and the rural economy.

This was supposedly justified because somehow the expense was necessary to protect Britain’s vital stake in the meat export trade, although this is worth perhaps worth 1 per cent of this sum. I hope Gordon Brown will not permit a repeat of this exercise in which NFU members looted the treasury while the countryside was shut down.

One can pray that the government has learned its lessons from last time. The new chief vet, Debby Reynolds, presumably no relation, seems possibly more sensible that the primitives in charge last time. But Defra is still hopeless as its £450million cock-up of the single farm payments scheme proved (the author of this, Margaret Beckett, was subsequently promoted by Tony Blair to be his last, improbable, foreign secretary.)

We now need evidence that Defra has learned its lessons. The initial signs are mixed. Defra at least seems to be working this weekend. But we still need to know more about what is going on. Worst of all, we really do not know Defra’s policy. There are worrying signs it is still inclined to killing everything in sight, and not inclined to recognise that the science of immunisation has moved on, since 1929.

I am now 4 km from the edge of the surveillance zone in Surrey and the countryside here is covered in cattle and sheep. Why are these animals not being vaccinated?

Chief vet Debby Reynolds (I think)