The trail of the unmarked pig leads to surprising conclusions about our food

Click to follow

Like a class of guilty schoolchildren, none of the 34 farmers who supplied the slaughterhouse would own up to the unmarked pig that set off last week's scare about foot-and-mouth disease.

Like a class of guilty schoolchildren, none of the 34 farmers who supplied the slaughterhouse would own up to the unmarked pig that set off last week's scare about foot-and-mouth disease.

The new Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has acted with commendable speed in checking all animals on all the farms and in narrowing down the list of suspects to 17. But it still beggars belief that some farmers have failed to learn from the £8bn disaster of last year's outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, one of the world's largest.

While everyone – not least in the tourist industry, which bore the brunt of last year's losses – will be relieved that last week's suspected case turned out to be a false alarm, there are two general lessons from the incident.

One is that no one should pay too much attention to complaints from farmers about burdensome regulations and red tape. From the behaviour of the mystery farmer in Leicestershire and that of Bobby Waugh, sentenced yesterday for hygiene offences at the farm where last year's outbreak probably started, it should be apparent that not all farmers can be trusted to behave responsibly. It should be remembered, therefore, that regulation is in the interest not just of responsible farmers but of the rest of us, too.

The other lesson is more sympathetic to the farming industry. Too few people in this country are aware of the economic pressures on Britain's pig industry. This does not excuse the failings of Waugh or the anonymous owner of the unmarked Leicestershire pig. But it is easier to maintain high standards in an industry that is profitable.

The problem pig farmers face is that some regulations – those concerned with animal welfare – are different in different parts of Europe. Britain has better rules on pig husbandry, among other things banning the tethering of sows, than some of its neighbours. This makes British pork more expensive, and so consumers have been driven by price to cheaper foreign imports. Part of the solution is better food labelling, giving consumers more information about where meat comes from and the circumstances of its production.

But there is a larger issue here, about the nature of a free market in food, which is what the European Union is supposed to be working towards. While the EU struggles towards the reduction of Common Agricultural Policy subsidies – on which it has made absolutely no progress recently, despite the urgent need to reach a deal before 10 new member states can join in 2004 – it has neglected issues of animal welfare.

The question is how to create a wider market in which the incentives are tilted against animal cruelty, rather than encouraging farmers to undercut each other at the expense of animal welfare.

Germany faced another aspect of this dilemma when it unilaterally decided to phase out battery hens altogether, while Britain has so far decided to adopt the new EU-wide "enriched cages" minimum standard.

It may seem a long way from the peasant farmers of Krakow to Leicestershire, but the foot-and-mouth false alarm at the abattoir in Congerstone is a reminder of the connectedness of the European food market.

So far, the rhetoric of Europe's leaders about enlargement has been fine, windy stuff. Bringing in 75 million more people, mostly central Europeans, with an average income per head of about a quarter of that enjoyed by the rest of the EU, is right and noble and good and in the long-term interest of all the peoples of this continent. But in the short term there are many practical difficulties that the EU's leaders failed miserably to tackle at their Seville summit last weekend.