UK outbreak raises questions
BIERGES, Belgium -- Abattoirs are empty. Machines in the slaughter houses stand idle. The fear of foot-and-mouth disease spreading from the UK has put a halt to much of the trade in livestock across continental Europe.
Animals destined for market are staying put on the farms -- until the authorities declare the risk of foot-and-mouth has disappeared.
With foot-and-mouth hot on the heels of mad cow disease (BSE), the future of farming looks bleak to Belgian farmer Georges Masson.
In partnership with his father-in-law Jean Delstanche, Masson farms 300 head of Belgian blue cows on the outskirts of Bierges, a small village about 35 kilometres (22 miles) south of Brussels.
They have not sent an animal for slaughter since November.
"We hadn't wanted to take the risk of having our entire herd slaughtered if one of them tested positive for BSE," said Masson. This year the European Union introduced a new policy of testing for the disease in all animals sent for slaughter over the age of 30 months.
"We wanted to see how the incidence of the disease evolved and just as we were thinking the risks were beginning to fade, all the markets were shut as a precaution against foot-and-mouth.
"Here we are at the beginning of March with no end of it in sight. We just don't know when we'll be able to go to market again. There's no money coming in but the animals have to be fed and that is costing us".
Until the beginning of the 1990s the herd would have been vaccinated against foot-and-mouth disease. Since then the EU has adopted a policy of eradication instead of vaccination.
In the neighbouring village of Perwez, retired veterinary surgeon Andre Dupont says he never saw a case of the highly-contagious livestock disease during his 40 years of practice.
He reckons most vets today would not be able immediately to recognise the disease. The early stages in pigs, for instance, strongly resemble swine vesicular disease.
Dupont believes vaccination is the best system from the point of view of animal health.
"It's the cheapest way -- in the long run it costs less" he said. "But these days the market calls for animals without antibodies and the moment you vaccinate they have antibodies in their blood".
The vaccine available is not live. But antibodies would suggest the presence of foot-and-mouth even if it is not there.
That means under current regulations neither cattle nor carcasses could be exported, even though there is no risk to human health from vaccinated meat.
Since the EU-wide eradication policy was introduced, there have been minor outbreaks of foot-and-mouth in Italy and Greece. The most recent, in Greece last July, travelled over the border to non-EU neighbour Turkey.
Greece was obliged to follow the eradication policy but the EU supplied Turkey with vaccines to control the outbreak.
Dupont points to the first outbreak of foot-and-mouth recorded in the region of Venice in 1546. Accounts of the outbreak refer to similar symptoms reported in Paris in 1514.
"Most countries have been geographically protected by mountain ranges and rivers from the spread of foot-and-mouth" said Dupont. "But modern transport methods mean it's capable of travelling further much faster".
He remembers an epidemic in Belgium in the 1950s before he qualified as a vet.
"A trainload of beasts were transported from Belgium to Italy and on arrival they were presenting foot-and-mouth symptoms," he said.
"They hadn't left the train but there were outbreaks of the disease all the way along the route the train took -- Switzerland was hit especially hard".
Back on the farm Jean Delstanche says European law should be re-thought to avoid the prospect of many more farms being wiped out by the EU's eradication policy.
He strongly believes vaccination should be reintroduced and the law changed to allow vaccinated meat to be sold to the consumer. He also says he is against long distance transport of live animals for slaughter.
"Animals aren't made to spend days on end in a lorry" he said. "The longer they're transported, the more they suffer from stress and stress plays a major role in the development of disease".
The long-distance transportation of animals for slaughter is "a madness", according to veterinary surgeon David Wilkins, Director of the Eurogroup for Animal Welfare.
"The longer you transport a farm animal, the greater the stress and the more likelihood of suffering" he said.
"It's also very clear that the transporters in Europe are not all very responsible people. It is also clear -- and this has been shown in the foot-and-mouth outbreak -- that this type of transportation is responsible for spreading disease".
As far as the farmers are concerned, it is just a case of bad luck for the British. They are not pointing the finger of blame as they do for the spread of BSE. There is widespread recognition the foot-and-mouth epidemic could have broken out anywhere.
But there is also a growing awareness that modern intensive farming methods have much to answer for.
"It's certainly time to go back to the old methods," says Jean Delstanche. "I think it's the only possible solution in general to lessen the impact of this disease.
"In just one year we've seen dioxin, we've seen BSE and now we're seeing foot-and-mouth. After that, what next?"
Certainly not a legacy this generation of farmers wants to pass on to the next.
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