Related Story From the Washington Post
Asian Meat Suspected As Source Of Disease
Shipment to Britain Possibly Used in Feed Culled
By T.R. Reid Washington Post Foreign Service Wednesday, March 28, 2001; Page
LONDON, March 27 -- A team of British detectives who dug through garbage dumps
and tracked thousands of livestock shipments has concluded that the source of
this spring's disastrous outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease may have been an
imported shipment of tainted meat, possibly from East Asia.
British Agriculture Secretary Nick Brown told Parliament today that some of
the infected meat may have ended up in garbage that was later fed to pigs in
northern England. The pigs became infected, then passed on the highly contagious
virus to seven nearby sheep. When these sheep were trucked to market, they set
off a livestock epidemic that has now struck at least four European countries,
costing farmers, related industries and governments huge sums.
The Agriculture Ministry's explanation of the outbreak -- still just a tentative
conclusion, Brown noted -- demonstrates how difficult it can be for nations
to maintain animal health in an era of global food markets and jumbo jet transport.
"I don't know how you can deal with [potentially dangerous] imports," said
Julian Wimpenny, a microbiologist at the Cardiff School of Biosciences. "If
we're talking about clamping down on illegal imports from unclean countries,
we should clamp down. But it's difficult, it's impossible, to stop individual
people from bringing in a sandwich in their luggage."
The U.S. government, too, has been worried about how to keep animal diseases
from being introduced through imports. The United States has not had a case
of foot-and-mouth disease since 1929; foot-and-mouth had not been seen in Europe
for 20 years before the current outbreak began in mid-February.
British detectives tracking the nationwide epidemic back to its source surmise
that a small pig farm at Heddon on the Wall, England -- just south of the Scottish
border near Hadrian's Wall -- bought garbage from a restaurant as animal feed.
This may have been a Chinese restaurant using uncertified meat smuggled here
from East Asia, the British media said.
In a classic instance of closing the barn door too late, Brown said he has
now banned the use of pig swill -- that is, feed made from boiled garbage. But
he emphasized that the main issue of the moment is to get control of a blight
that seems to be going from bad to worse each day.
The disease has spread to about 700 farms and slaughterhouses in Britain and
a scattering of sites in Ireland, Holland and France. The four governments have
quarantined affected areas and ordered the slaughter of any animals exposed
to the virus. More than 500,000 animals, mostly sheep, have been killed and
burned so far to stop the spread.
Foot-and-mouth disease does not cause human health problems; rather, it is
an economic plague for farmers. Pigs, sheep and cows that break out with the
characteristic blisters on hooves and lips do not give milk or gain weight,
so livestock farmers cannot make a profit. The virus spreads literally with
The British government has ordered the slaughter of tens of thousands of healthy
animals as a "firebreak" strategy against the spread of the disease. But that
prompted so much outcry from farmers that Prime Minister Tony Blair reversed
course today and said he will now consider vaccination, rather than killing,
of uninfected herds. Vaccination is avoided because it means the animals carry
a form of the virus and therefore are difficult to sell abroad.
Blair's turnabout reflects the political pressures the crisis has posed here.
With a national election expected this spring, Blair and his government face
increasing charges of incompetence because they have been unable to slow the
As the agriculture minister made clear today, the government also has been
caught between consumer pressure for cheap meat at the market and the agriculture
industry's need to protect domestic herds from imported diseases.
"Cheap food is a subject very close to the government's heart," said Tom Lowther,
a livestock farmer in the northern county of Cumbria. "It's a very brave government
that will force up the price of food by banning imports from cheap countries."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company