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UK crisis strikes European chord

LONDON, England (CNN) -- The foot-and-mouth crisis causing devastation to Britain's livestock industry is winning much sympathy across Europe for the country's farmers.

A cartoon in France's Le Monde newspaper on the crisis has Hamlet tearfully asking an animal skull: "To be or not to be a farmer!"

The rejoinder -- "That is the question!" -- comes from the skull, placed in the prince's left hand by Plantu, author of the cartoon that ran on Le Monde's front page on Friday.

The disembodied heads of a pig and sheep hover over the scene. Poking out of the curtain to the right, a clutch of gawkers, cameras and a magnifying glass at the ready, lean in for a closer inspection. Europe
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What is foot-and-mouth disease?

Irreverent as it may seem, the cartoon can be seen as an expression of neighbourly European concern for a British farming industry that has stumbled from one debacle to the next.

Britain is home to the Pirbright Laboratory, Europe's leading centre for research on animal infections, from hoof-and-mouth disease and African horse sickness, to sheep and goat pox.

But in recent years, the UK has also been the breeding ground for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or "mad-cow" disease, a brain-wasting cattle ailment whose human variant, vCJD, has claimed more than 80 victims in Britain. BSE has recently spread to the European mainland.

This week's outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Britain -- the largest flare-up in the UK since a major epidemic in 1967, and a smaller one in 1981 -- comes on the heels of recent cases of swine fever, salmonella poisoning, and concerns over the safety of genetically modified crops.

Taken together, the string of crises has contributed to what animal health experts see as a misguided perception that Britain is somehow more susceptible to such episodes than other countries.

But Yves Cheneau, the chief of animal health services at the Food and Agriculture Organisation, a United Nations unit based in Rome, Italy, said: "This can happen anywhere."

Cheneau was referring to this week's discovery of foot-and-mouth disease at an abattoir in Essex, in south-east England.

The outbreak prompted the European Union to impose a blanket ban on Wednesday on all British livestock, meat and dairy products pending eradication of the highly contagious virus.

Britain pre-empted the ban, which is a standard EU practice in such cases, by voluntarily halting all exports of animal products, and later banned the movement of all livestock.

The foot-and-mouth outbreak comes at a time when Britain was just overcoming the effects of the BSE crisis, and following the EU's lifting last year of a longstanding embargo on British beef as a vote of restored confidence.

"The last thing the industry needs now is foot-and-mouth disease," among the most infectious animal diseases, said Peter Reynolds, a regional manager with the British Meat and Livestock Commission.

No risk to humans

Reynolds acknowledged that "farming has had a very tough time in the UK for the past three or four years."

But he also stressed that the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, for all its potential for rapid spreading, is something that has been around for a long time, and which has appeared all over the world.

"In a way, it's very straightforward. There are no implications for the human food chain. The problem now is that it is specific to animals."

This view is echoed by Beate Gminder, the spokeswoman for David Byrne, the EU's commissioner for health and consumer protection.

"This is an animal disease question," Gminder said. "It's a blow to farmers of course, but it's not something that's a risk to humans."

Last year, the UK exported 100,000 tonnes of goat and sheep products to other EU members, plus an additional 1,000 tonnes to non-Community states.

Pork products accounted for 100,000 tonnes of exports, in 1999, of which half went to EU members, while milk and dairy product exports totalled 540,000 tonnes.

How quickly Britain will recuperate these lost markets remains an open question.

In Greece, which experienced an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in June 2000 in its northern region of Evros, bordering Turkey, it took four months for authorities to eradicate the disease, according to George Tillas, the director general of veterinary services at the Greek Ministry of Agriculture.

By the time they had tackled the outbreak, and the EU lifted its export ban on Greek animal products, Tillas said, Greece had slaughtered 5,400 cows, 4,000 sheep and 3,500 pigs.

Cheneau, at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation, believes that the current farm crisis in Britain is symptomatic of the pitfalls countries and regions are likely to encounter from time to time in an age of globalisation.

Looking ahead, Cheneau said, the trick will be to find a workable balance between freedom of trade and freedom of individual movement.

"We are living in a context where commerce is being liberalised, along with the movements of goods and people, and the price to pay for a lot of the countries that are receiving these goods is this type of situation."

UK bans animal movements to curb virus
February 23, 2001
UK closes on foot-and-mouth source
February 23, 2001
BSE: Moves to repel European disease
January 29, 2001
Global action over mad cow fears
December 22, 2000

UK BSE Inquiry
UK Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
EU Commission for Foot-and-Mouth disease control
National Farmers' Union
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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