British Hysteria Fueled by Stupidity

Nation Ignored Foot-and-Mouth Warning, Dooming 910,000 Sheep. A Special Report From the Killing Fields

Where Britain once grew up to 30 percent of its food, importing the rest from the colonies, now farm policy is driven by export and the whims of free marketeers. "Foot-and-mouth is an economic disease," says professor Tim Lang, an agricultural trade expert at Thames Valley University and a former farmer himself. The animals are "slaughtered to protect the export system."

This system leads to different sorts of black markets running beneath the seemingly smooth surface of EU agriculture policy. British farmers, anxious to meet quotas, which determine how much they make, "borrow" sheep from friends to raise their quotas on paper. As soon as they hit the numbers, the farmers trade the sheep back so their ally can make his quota. No one really knows what actually happens to these sheep. Trying to track the movement of livestock under such a system during an epidemic is next to futile. In a complex under-the-table trade, European meat sometimes leaves the continent, only to be brought back on the sly so it can be exported again.

With such activities abounding, there is little chance of controlling the spread of virulent diseases—especially with regulation and oversight so lacking. British citizens were stunned by the recent revelation that their leaders had been told foot-and-mouth was racing across Asia and would likely reach their farms. The politicians did not tighten up screening for infected meat, instead choosing to leave things to the European Union. With a straight face an agriculture ministry spokesperson told the press last week, "We could not anticipate an outbreak. Hindsight is a wonderful thing."


Additional reporting: Rouven Gueissaz and Adam Gray

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