Damaged pipe blamed for foot-and-mouth outbreak

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The outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease last month may have been caused by a damaged pipe at the Pirbright laboratory complex in Surrey.

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive published tomorrow is understood to conclude the virus that led to the outbreak was present in an underground pipe running from the Merial pharmaceutical firm to a treatment plant operated by the Government's Institute for Animal Health, which shares the complex.

It is thought the pipe may have been damaged by tree roots before flooding pushed traces of the virus to the surface. The Government believes that Merial may have been responsible for maintaining the pipe but that may be disputed by the American-owned firm. Talks are continuing on the issue, which could affect compensation claims.

It is not known how the virus found its way to the farmland a few miles away. But the inquiry found that contractors working at Pirbright travelled to and from the site using a road adjoining the farmland where the first outbreak occurred.

Farmers have reacted furiously to the news that the outbreak could have originiated from a government-funded research site. Peter Kendall, president of the National Farmers' Union, met with Gordon Brown and told him another outbreak should not be allowed to occur. "What I said to him, quite bluntly, was we must make sure the investment takes place to make sure this never ever happens again to the farming industry," he said. " Farming has been dramatically affected. Our export markets and our movement of animals within the UK [have] been shut down for quite a long period of time."

Keith Plumb, of the Instituition of Chemical Engineers, said there would be serious questions raised if the virus was proved to have transferred from one site to another.

"What does come as a surprise is that Merial were apparently allowed to transfer untreated effluent from their site to the IAH site," he said. "A virulent and persistent virus like foot-and-mouth should be treated within the same building. Transferring dangerous liquid underground is not a good idea since it is difficult to detect leaks."

Defra, the Department responsible, refused to comment on the report's contents last night.