Foot and mouth: The dirty war

What is the truth behind the headlines? Are they, as the farmers and some newspapers would have you believe, part of a government plot? Are the farmers more spinned against than spinning?
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It is the plague of the animal kingdom. And like the plague, no one believed that it would ever re-appear in Britain. But the first case of foot and mouth disease – more than 30 years after the last epidemic in 1967 – was confirmed on 20 February 2001. And that is about all that anyone agrees on.

It is the plague of the animal kingdom. And like the plague, no one believed that it would ever re-appear in Britain. But the first case of foot and mouth disease – more than 30 years after the last epidemic in 1967 – was confirmed on 20 February 2001. And that is about all that anyone agrees on.

Much was at stake. The cost of the foot and mouth epidemic is expected to top £3bn in compensation, export losses and a downturn in the tourist trade. Even that, some argue, is a mere detail: farming was in jeopardy. But what followed was dispute, disinformation and disarray.

Pyres burned, carcasses rotted and disinfectant baths played "welcome mat" at farm gates, and politicians, civil servants, farmers and union leaders braced themselves against blame. A dirty war of words had begun. The findings of an untidy three-pronged inquiry into the handling of the outbreak is unlikely to allow anyone to move on. So just what is behind those foot and mouth stories? Truth or propaganda?

 

Rush on to find source

The 'Daily Mirror', 23 February. 'A humble sandwich brought into Britain by an air traveller could have caused the outbreak.'

Initial reports of the appearance of the disease in a pig herd at Heddon-on-the-Wall, Northumberland, brought a rush of speculation about the carrier. Headlines referred to a suspect sandwich. But within days opinions had changed. It was mooted that food from a Chinese takeaway had found its way into swill. Nick Brown, then the agriculture minister, banned feeding swill to pigs. Disgruntled Cantonese restaurateurs marched on Whitehall. But earlier unofficial speculation that the virus had been in the country for several weeks was confirmed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff). Maff briefings were linked to a string stories – from reports that illegal imports of meat from foot and mouth disease-infected countries were coming into Britain to theories that the virus escaped from Pirbright laboratory during vaccination trials.

 

Maff: The ministry that can turn a crisis into a catastrophe

Opinion article, 'Daily Mail', 27 February

The knives were out for Maff. A Labour election victory would surely mean its demise. The political right saw Maff as ineffectual and weak and inept in Europe. The Labour left believed the department contained too many wealthy farmers, embodied by the National Farmers' Union (NFU). And the farmers, who privately curse the name of Maff's permanent secretary, Brian Bender, claimed its civil servants were too close to the Government. Maff had lost its food safety role to the new Food Standards Agency. The incumbent at the start of the foot and mouth crisis was Nick Brown, former chief whip. Soon after the 2001 election, Maff was replaced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

 

Outbreak could delay election until autumn

The 'Times', 28 February

It was the first time that the prospect of the anticipated 3 May election being put back was raised in a story by the Times's political editor. The story was officially denied on the grounds that no one had ever said there would be an election on 3 May. But it was a clear test of public opinion and a warning that the epidemic would continue to bite. May 3 was what Mr Blair wanted – symbolically four years almost to the day that his party had won in 1997. Foot and mouth put its plans in jeopardy. Attempts in Whitehall to declare the disease "under control" were dismissed with protestations that it was "carnage" out there. June 7 became the favoured date – it was officially denied.

 

Tourism counts cost of epidemic

The 'Independent on Sunday', 4 March

The latest estimates of the cost of epidemic to the tourist industry come from the Treasury, warning that tourism could lose more than the entire British agriculture industry produces in pre-tax profits each year. But the tourist industry failed to secure compensation on anything approaching the scale awarded to the farmers. The sums being offered in compensation were peanuts (up to about £20m), raising further hackles about the money going to the farmers. The Government's priority was to give the impression that the countryside was "closed" as the disease began to spread and could now be safely "opened". As early as mid-March, when foot and mouth was still raging, Chris Smith and Janet Anderson, then ministers in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, tried to stress that Britain was "open for business". The pair went on a government-sponsored mission to sell the message. Maff ordered that footpaths be re-opened. Farmers believed it was too early, and they dismissed the worries of hoteliers and shop-owners. The farmers lost sympathy because they had none for anyone else.

 

Illegal traffic spreading virus

The 'Times', 10 April

"Tony Blair has been told that foot and mouth may be being spread by the illegal movement of sheep ... they may be deliberately infecting their stock to gain compensation."

The revelation – repeated several times in the months that followed – is still unsubstantiated. The slaughter programme was at its height, and the compensation cash register was ringing up huge sums. Nick Brown asked farmers not to move animals without special licences after a Cabinet Office report disclosed that 309 cases were being investigated. To date, police have not found evidence that farmers infected livestock. At the time of the briefing, the disease was spreading and the Government's policy was mass slaughter. Blame could be shifted to the farmers who had allegedly infected their own farms.

 

Hostile farmers force delay on vaccination

The 'Daily Telegraph', 17 April

Four weeks of campaigning from the organic sector, farmers and leading scientists, calling for an emergency vaccination programme had persuaded Mr Blair there was a case for immunising cattle, and permission was granted by Europe. But the "hostile farmers" held up progress. Ordinary farmers wanted to vaccinate. Their pleas were drowned out by the NFU. Bemused farmers heard conflicting advice from Downing Street, Maff and the NFU leader, Ben Gill, who was against vaccination and convinced Downing Street that the NFU had the backing of all farmers. An announcement by Maff that there had been a drop in the number of outbreaks meant vaccination was no longer an option.

 

Epidemic over, now for election

The 'Daily Telegraph', 3 May

It should have been election day but it ended up being the day Tony Blair gave the first formal indication – at a press conference in No 10 – that 7 June was on. He put political expedience above practicalities and declared that the Government was winning the battle against foot and mouth. It was a gamble, but the dice were loaded. The groundwork had already been done. Leading scientists had told the Commons Agriculture Committee in April that the last days of campaigning would be "disease free" as cases of foot and mouth declined. The numbers did drop, though the figures remain controversial. And – the clearest sign of an election yet – the cute Phoenix the calf was spared the cull. Mori put Labour on 50 per cent, the Tories on 21 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 13 per cent. The decision to go on 7 June was put down to Anji Hunter, the Prime Minister's aide and touchstone in Middle England. She is either a political genius – or extremely lucky. The announcement of the election date, with the disease "under control", prompted a silent period on foot and mouth reporting as the parties talked about asylum seekers, hospitals, schools, pension and crime instead.

Cull makes 37 farmers millionaires

'Sunday Times', 5 August

Compensation payments of more than £1m provided another opportunity for Whitehall to transfer anger over the handling of the outbreak from the Government to the farmers. While government sources said there would be a National Audit Office investigation into compensation, little was mentioned about the asset value of breeding stock compared to that of animals destined for food. Defra has been accused of leaking the highest compensation figure – £4.2m. There were the cases of infected carcasses being offered on the black market. Farmers accused the Government of blackening their names. Damaging headlines are not expected to stop there as millions are poured into the farming community and compensation surpasses anything for any other industry.

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