British Hysteria Fueled by Stupidity

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

 LAZONBY, CUMBRIA, ENGLAND, March 31—Along the road into this northern English village, a couple stand leaning on the gate to a small farm. They are motionless, almost as if in a trance, staring out at something. In the near distance, a thin column of smoke rises above the sloping green fields.

A little way down the road, a British soldier in rumpled camouflage waits next to a matching truck parked in front of a big barn. The barn is open and empty. Just out of town, a pickup towing a small trailer draped in a blue tarp has pulled off, and two young men, dressed all in white, are spraying the roadsides with disinfectant.

Behind them, half hidden by the stone walls, lies a newly dug pit with smoke already wafting up. These three men are the execution squad, cleaning up before a visit to the next farm.

Still farther along the back road, a rise gives a view across the undulating countryside, neatly divided by walls, green with early spring, the daffodils just coming out. Dotted with farmhouses and barns, the fields are empty of animals. Everywhere, plumes of smoke drift skyward. The place is enveloped in silence, and in the smell of charred flesh. By the time the weekend is over, every sheep in Lazonby will be dead.

The landscape resembles a war zone, and indeed, this is a military operation. At month's end, foot-and-mouth disease had broken out at 840 farms. Nationwide, 570,000 sheep had already been slaughtered, and 340,000 more awaited the same fate. With only 921 confirmed cases, the ratio of diagnosis to killing has at times been one to 1000.

The worst outbreak is in Cumbria, in northwestern England on the Scottish border. Here the campaign is being waged not at the center of the outbreak, but on its edges, where there is no infection, with the British army clearing what amounts to a cordon sanitaire around the disease. Brigadier Alex Birtwistle, a counterterrorist specialist, is in charge of the operation, and his aim, reports the London Sunday Times, is to destroy "every living thing" in a broad corridor through the countryside.

Despite such ruthless efforts, the disease has not yet been contained—nor has the fallout from it. On Saturday, it was revealed that British agriculture ministry officials participated in a Tokyo conference called in June to warn other countries that a new pan-Asian strain of foot-and-mouth was spreading quickly throughout that continent. On returning, the government officials not only failed to give any public warnings, but didn't even tell the nation's farmers.

Stung by the crisis, Prime Minister Tony Blair put off his planned May 3 attempt at reelection until early June, and also got on television with U.S. correspondents in an effort to persuade Americans to visit Britain. Few well-known voices have failed to speak their piece. The moribund Tory leader William Hague weakly asked for help for small businesses hurt by the disease. Prince Charles, the most outspoken voice for organic farming, has donated over 500,000 pounds to the farmers, and last weekend he branded the mass killing "mindless." Scottish patriot Sean Connery announced he'll lead a public relations campaign aimed at persuading Americans to come back to Scotland. Grassroots protests have also cropped up. In northern Wales, another huge sheepherding area where the cull is turning the rivers red with blood, residents stole a bulldozer and bashed in a police car with a cop inside it.

Foot-and-mouth threatens to paralyze British agriculture for at least a year, and it is devastating the much larger tourism business, which by one estimate could lose 470 million pounds—about $666 million—per week this month. The farmers, who were already subsidized annually to the tune of 19,000 pounds, will be paid for the animals killed. But the tourist industry has no subsidy. Tony Blair says the crisis has been trumped up by the media, and disinformation does seem to be widespread: British TV viewers last week were treated to live interviews on the streets of New York, where eight out of 10 people said they wouldn't come here—some frightened they couldn't find any food safe to eat, others that their hands and feet would fall off. Yet the idea of pits filled with the bodies of sheep and their tiny lambs is hardly inviting, and a map published in the Guardian makes Britain look like a combat zone.

More and more, the slaughter policy seems to make little economic sense. Britain's major farm exports are dairy products and lamb meat, with an annual value of only 310 million pounds, argues Peter Midmore, an agricultural economics professor at the University of Wales. The loss of this trade wouldn't do much harm to the national economy. Midmore also questions the assertion that British meat will forever be tainted on the world market, since the country exports so little in the first place, mostly to fellow members of the European Union. If that trade were lost, it might help the U.K. by increasing the domestic supply and reducing prices, especially in the case of milk, a product Britain might otherwise soon have to import.

The slaughter itself, on the other hand, will be very costly. According to one late March analysis, it could end up affecting 4000 farms and 31 million animals. More realistically, it would involve nearly 3 million pigs and sheep alone, with Cumbrian sheep accounting for half the total. Lost income and the burden of replacing these animals could run to about 183 million pounds, or $259 million, on top of the lost tourist revenue.

Since foot-and-mouth is fatal neither to animals nor humans, some advocate vaccinating livestock to stop the spread. Vaccinated animals couldn't be exported, but a full-scale program would still cost less than the current approach. "In total," says Midmore, "the maximum cost of the vaccination alternative would be limited to 315 million pounds."

Slaughtering animals is scarcely worth the price in lost tourism. Wealth in Cumbria comes not from the small farms with their grazing sheep. These operations barely stay alive, even with the subsidies; a lone farmer often shepherds a flock with help only from his border collie, and shears the wool himself. What makes the money is the picturesque look of the place, complete with tranquil lambs grazing on the green hills. This supports tens of thousands of businesses: B&Bs, restaurants, shops, and tour companies—entire busy communities that might otherwise be deserted.

In southern Cumbria's famous Lake District, the back roads and trails are, according to one local, usually "black with tourists" walking the countryside; now, business has fallen off to a trickle. The lakes and villages remain accessible by paved roads, but the government has marked virtually every path and field out-of-bounds. To enter Britain's largest national park, cars must drive across mats soaked in antiseptic. A case of foot-and-mouth was discovered within the park last week, putting everyone on edge. In Winderemere, at the center of the Lake District, the proprietor of one bed-and-breakfast reported only six guests on the weekend, compared to the usual 20. Such things have a ripple effect. She, in turn, will not be able to afford to employ local contractors, as planned, to repaint her house. A man making his living taking visitors on driving tours has seen his business drop by 70 percent.

There is one new profession open to locals, however: In an effort, he says, to help the local economy, Brigadier Birtwistle contracts with local companies to move through the villages and carry out the slaughter. The people of the countryside are tossing their livelihood onto the pyre, carcass by carcass.

Local business owners speak of just trying to hang on until next year. But the impact of the slaughter, if not the disease, may be long-term. Over the weekend, the National Environmental Technology Center filed a report with the government warning that using gasoline, kerosene, and creosote to burn dead animals is likely to send up deadly cancer-causing dioxins into the winds, and that poisonous runoff from the shallow graves of thousands of sheep scattered about may end up leaching into the water supply. In addition, the Ministry of Agriculture has granted permission to bury young cattle—something that's never been done because of fears it would spread mad cow disease into the water.

It all seems like the wrong way to fight a disease that neither infects humans nor even kills the animals themselves. But this is the way foot-and-mouth has always been handled.

The practice of slaughter in response to similar livestock diseases was carried out as a precaution to protect public health as far back as 1711. With the rise of modern business during the industrial revolution, argues Abigail Woods, a vet at Manchester University who has studied foot-and-mouth, the slaughter response helped protect the interests of the rich. "Breeders perceiving [it] as a disease inflicting severe economic losses upon their valuable stock possessed the political power to impress these notions upon others," she writes. In addition, she says, the disease had to be stamped out for the sake of efficiency. Animals who contract foot-and-mouth are less valuable because their weight drops and they produce less meat and milk. "The capitalists fear that reduction in the meat supply by [foot-and-mouth] would spark civil unrest and reduce workers' productivity levels."

The Cumbrian landscape is crisscrossed by walls, built two centuries ago to divide the land among the small farmers. To the north, just below the Scottish border, is Hadrian's Wall, left behind by the Roman conquerors.

Now there are new kinds of barriers here, delineated by the signs marking the fields and country lanes off-limits to tourists. These barriers were created by the destruction of others. Foot-and-mouth is a disease of the global economy. It is among the features of the new free-trade world, in which devastating invasions occur not with foreign armies landing, but with an Asian longhorn beetle sneaking ashore in a crate from China, or a damaging bug stuck on a tree carried north to Oregon from a Mexican forest.

By erasing national borders, free trade introduces a new set of conditions. British sheep, which once took a full season to meander their way down from the hills to the valleys, are now whipped around the country in two or three days. They once were butchered in local abattoirs, an arrangement that confined the 1967 foot-and-mouth outbreak to the north. England lacked enough veterinary inspectors to comply with the strict standards of the European Union, which led to the recruiting of foreign inspectors, many of them women from Spain who had trouble with the language and struggled in an all-male industry. Choked by regulations, scores of local abattoirs closed in the late 1990s, and farmers began sending animals all around the country to fewer and more specialized operations. This process has almost certainly contributed to the spread of foot-and-mouth across the nation.

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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