A fresh "probable" leak of the foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) virus has occurred at animal laboratories in Surrey, it was confirmed yesterday, prompting accusations of gaps in biosecurity and government incompetence.
The leak of the virus is thought to have occurred within days of production restarting at the plant, which was involved in the leak earlier this year that caused an outbreak of FMD in cattle in farms in Surrey and which cost the industry millions of pounds in lost exports.
Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary, sought to minimise the dispute by insisting that the latest "internal" leak at the private Merial company laboratory at Pirbright had been contained and had not escaped into the countryside.
However, critics of the Government said assurances about the high standards of biosecurity at the Pirbright labs had proved hollow in the past. The Liberal Democrats' environment spokesman, Chris Huhne, MP said: "After promises that the systems at Pirbirght were sound, they appear to have broken down yet again.
"It is a relief that the virus appears not to have leaked into the environment. However, we cannot have a situation where farmers in Surrey and across the country are in a constant state of fear that their livelihoods could be devastated by sloppy practice at a government-sponsored laboratory designed to protect them."
The Liberal Democrat leadership challenger warned that Mr Benn's position as Secretary of State would become "untenable" if there were any repetition. "The Secretary of State must get tough on breaches at Pirbright," he said.
Peter Ainsworth, the shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, said it would shock the farming community, the British science community and the public. "This government's credibility is rapidly falling apart," said Mr Ainsworth. "Gordon Brown spent the whole summer boasting of his competence in handling the foot-and-mouth outbreak. Today we discover that just days after the Government approved renewed production there has been a further outbreak."
The private company had its licence to produce virus for vaccines suspended after its labs, with the neighbouring publicly owned Institute for Animal Health, were held responsible for the leak of FMD virus earlier this year.
Mr Benn said yesterday his department restored the licence to Merial Animal Health to produce FMD and Bluetongue viruses for vaccine production on 6 November after detailed inspections had verified improved biosecurity.
However, on 19 November, the company discovered a shortfall in the production of an FMD live virus. Tests by Merial engineers found a valve had been leaking, "allowing an unintended probable release of live FMD virus into the contained drainage system, which was then pumped to the final chemical treatment facility without being heat treated".
Merial told Mr Benn's officials about the leak at 4pm on 20 November. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) suspended Merial's licence. An inspection team sent in by government inspectors concluded that it was possible live FMD virus had entered the contained drainage system inside the plant. They had been assured "that live virus has not been released to the environment".
Farmers are already angry at being asked by Defra to pay a contribution of about £40m to its budget after Mr Benn said the cost to the taxpayer of dealing with animal disease was "unsustainable".
Defra is reported to be heading for a £115m overspend after having to cope with floods, and a series of outbreaks including bird flu, Bluetongue and the self-inflicted outbreak of FMD.
The final report by the Health and Safety Executive found the existing system of drainage was "inadequate as a containment against the release of animal pathogens".Reuse content