Ban on moving livestock as Brussels demands assurances over swine fever

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The government ban on the movement of all livestock from farms affected by the outbreak of swine fever came at the same time as the European Commission (EC) ban on the export of live pigs.

The government ban on the movement of all livestock from farms affected by the outbreak of swine fever came at the same time as the European Commission (EC) ban on the export of live pigs.

Last night there was friction between the government and Brussels as the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (Maff) pre-empted a demand today for assurances from British officials that the government is doing enough to prevent the spread of the swine fever outbreak which provoked the EU ban.

A Maff spokesman said: "The action that has been taken just now is both comprehensive and wide-ranging enough to reassure the commission that we are taking all steps necessary to control the spread of the disease. There is no scope for doing more than is being done now." Today's meeting of experts from the EC and the Maff is the precursor to a gathering of scientific specialists next week to review the ban.

The Maff's special measures when the disease first broke out mean farmers must obtain a special licence to transport cows, sheep and other animals from the "surveillance areas", says the ministry. Up to 12,000 pigs had to be slaughtered in the country's first outbreak of the disease for 14 years.

So virulent is swine fever that officials in Brussels want to discuss the whole range of measures to contain it, from the disinfection of trucks used to transport infected pigs, to the disposal of manure from contaminated herds.

In the last swine fever outbreak, in the Netherlands, 10 million pigs were slaughtered, costing millions of euros in government compensation.

Two main tasks face officials, identifying this outbreak's source and preventing further infection. With the help of EC laboratories in the Netherlands and Germany, scientists will try to identify from blood samples whether the virus belongs to one of the existing strains or whether it is a new one. Swine fever is an extremely adaptable virus which can mutate.

Officials in Brussels believe that, with Britain having been free from the disease for 14 years, it is probable the source may have been a pig imported from the continent. But a reservoir of swine fever remains in wild animals - not only wild boar but dogs and foxes - and could have been the origin.

Brussels also wants to know what checks have been made on the farms affected since the beginning of July, and on the transport of pigs from them. The problem of identifying the spread is complicated by swine fever having a 10-day incubation period, and symptoms that are often confused with those of a harmless disease.

The precautions which need to be taken are strict: any truck used to transport infected livestock needs to be disinfected, any animals moved in the meantime needs to be monitored for the disease.

Manure from contaminated herds must not be spread on agricultural land in case it is ingested by wild animals. And pig meat from the affected area destined for animal food needs to be heated to more than 60 degrees to kill the virus.

Today's meeting of officials is the prelude to a gathering next week of the EU's Standing Veterinary Committee, which includes representatives of each member state.Andrea Dahmen, the EC spokeswoman, says by then: "The UK will have to convince the other parties that the disease is contained and will have to come up with a detailed report, including the findings from blood tests, the number of holdings with confirmed cases and the number of suspected holdings".