Cunningham in row over cattle burials

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The Independent Online
THE Minister of Agriculture, Jack Cunningham, yesterday demanded proof that an increase in burials of farm animals was threatening severe and dangerous water pollution and a potential health hazard. Only if convincing proof was forthcoming would he take action, he said.

He was speaking after the Today programme on Radio 4 reported that more carcasses were being buried in pits on farmland, breaking guidelines which specify at least a metre of soil below and above the body and a minimum distance of 250m from streams, rivers and boreholes. Knackers used to pick dead animals up for free, and sell them to renderers who would process the carcasses for the by-products.

But the BSE crisis has undermined the knackering industry, depressing prices. Many businesses have closed and those that survive are charging farmers about pounds 50 to remove a dead animal.

The National Farmers Union and the Government's environment agencies in Scotland, England and Wales said they believed this was leading to an increase in the number of carcasses being buried on farms.

But while diseased carcasses risk spreading infections to other livestock and people if they are not properly buried, the agencies and the farmers' union say they have no knowledge of pollution incidents caused by the practice. ''It is something we are looking out for,'' said a spokeswoman for the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency.

On Today, Dr Cunningham challenged the programme to produce harder evidence when he was presented with photographs of water-filled pits of bloated carcasses. ''Photographs, you know, can be posed. If people would produce real evidence of a real problem we will take action."

He dismissed suggestions that cattle suspected of having BSE were being buried on farmland, which would be illegal. ''If there is a suspect BSE case or a real BSE case, farmers get several hundred pounds of compensation for every animal.'' He criticised the BBC for raising concerns about livestock burial based only on claims made anonymously, about unidentified locations. ''What is this supposed to do, except undermine public confidence in the livestock industry, which is terribly damaging to farmers.''

Professor Carl Linklater, a former president of the British Veterinary Association, told the programme there was a risk of infections such as E.coli, salmonella and listeria spreading from animals to people.