Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 40-59)



  40. If you take those out do they count towards the case numbers?
  (Mr Scudamore) No, because they would be generally considered to be the dangerous contact list. They are kept as a separate list which we call dangerous contacts. As I said, in the total number we have 394 confirmed premises and 341 dangerous contact premises.

  41. Where you have slaughtered?
  (Mr Scudamore) Where we have slaughtered the animals because we think they are potentially infected. Some of those will be in the same ownership. For example, one of the dealers had 14 premises. One had disease on it so we slaughtered that and that was confirmed as a premises. The other 13 were removed as dangerous contact premises but when we killed the animals on a number we found disease and they then get switched and go into the confirmed premises list.

  42. Do you think from now on you should publish on a daily basis the holding cases and the contact cases as two separate lists?
  (Mr Scudamore) They are available and we do give them out to the media.

  43. The public is under the impression we have had 394; it now turns out we have got a hell of a lot more.
  (Mr Scudamore) 394 confirmed and the other ones are potentially infected but there was no obvious disease at slaughter. There are 341 of those.

  44. Could I move on to the question of the speed of slaughter. I was on the telephone after 11 o'clock last night with the divisional veterinary manager down in Worcester desperately trying to persuade her to come up to a case reported yesterday evening in my constituency to slaughter half a dozen cows who were foaming, frothing and had very obvious lesions. In 1967 according to the 1969 Report they would have been slaughtered on the spot by a vet with a pistol, referring to the Secretary of State's earlier comment, and then the next day the rest of the flock or the herd would have been slaughtered and there would be a much, much quicker reaction to removing those very obviously infected animals immediately by the vet. I have talked to vets who worked in my constituency (and I live in the heart of it) and they are absolutely exasperated by the delays. They totally support your slaughter policy. I have a meeting with them on Friday to go over the detail of how it was done so much more quickly. What can you do to ensure that vets have powers to put down obviously infected animals immediately and then ensure the next day that the remainder of the herd can be put down?
  (Mr Scudamore) You have raised a number of different issues and they are problems. The first is report and getting report cases and the second is when the disease is confirmed and getting the animals killed. We have faced a number of problems with the escalating number of cases we have got. We have "dirty" vets and the difficulty is that if a vet goes onto a farm and there is disease there, there is a timelag before he can go back onto another farm. We started off with five days. If a vet went to a farm with the disease he could not go to another farm which did not have the disease for five days and he had to be decontaminated. We then took on board the international specification and we dropped it down to three days. So if a vet was on a farm with a disease he could not go to a clean farm for three days. We have been looking to see whether we can reduce that even further so that we can rotate vets around a lot faster. We would wish to get out to report cases as fast as we can and obviously that is one I will have to look into when I get back to the office. The vet will examine the animals and he will ring up and he will be given a confirmation. When we started dealing with the disease they would have to take samples and put them in the laboratory because we were not clear what we were dealing with because some of the conditions were not obvious. Now if a vet is on a farm and they ring to get confirmations we will confirm on clinical grounds, so if the vet rings up and he is on the farm and he has got five cattle with blisters on their tongues and high temperatures we would confirm that without requiring the samples to be taken. We are trying to speed up confirmation rates. The second thing is vets in most parts of the country are authorised to kill animals on the farm. However, if there are a small number of animals they will use Euthetal, one of the drugs, to kill the animals because we do not (unlike 1967-68) go around with guns. There are lots of difficulties with staff having guns. They are not always equipped to shoot animals on farms but in many cases they should use one of the drugs to put animals down as we do with BSE cases. If those animals are dead we would want to get a slaughter team in as soon as possible. There have been delays in doing that. We would want to try and get animals dead as fast as possible but there have been logistical problems with doing that. I should say in the case of pigs that they have top priority. With the case in Devon not long ago they worked through the night to kill the animals to make sure they were all dead. The interval from diagnosis to death is critical and it is too long at the moment.

  45. Could you make it mandatory that vets use this drug administered by injection when they visit a farm and see half a dozen very obviously diseased cattle? This site is in the heart of the largest dairy-producing area in the country. It is absolutely critical that they are put down as fast as possible. Farmers agree with that entirely. There is great frustration among the elderly vets around that there are delays. The Report was also quite clear when it said: "Diagnosis should not depend on confirmation on the telephone from the veterinary headquarters at Tolworth". Vets on site had much more executive power to make decisions on putting animals down on the spot. Can you give them that power under the current restrictions you are operating under with various regulations like the EU Foot and Mouth Directive? Do you have the power to do that?
  (Mr Scudamore) We do not have the power to do it but we could look into it. At the moment we would want the vet on the farm to investigate the case, to make a telephone report to our operations room, where we have a team of vets that take these reports, and if that report describes foot and mouth disease the vet is given permission to go ahead and slaughter. There was criticism at the beginning that it was taking too long but we are confirming 90 per cent of them now on clinical diagnosis and also the time lag is greatly reduced. So I do not know that confirmation on the farm is necessarily going to achieve a great saving in time. We do need to make sure (because we have a lot of new vets working for us) that we are confirming disease and it is correct and we are not confirming cases where there is not the disease. We have a lot of TVIs (temporary vets) working for us in practice and it is useful for us to discuss with them the cases. We have speeded up the whole process from the time they arrive to the time the disease is confirmed. It is my understanding they would normally kill the animals with lesions when they are on the farm and then would arrange for a slaughter team to come in later. I will look into this case specifically for you.

  46. We have all been inundated with cases around the country where there has been delay. If you could go back to the 1967 system where experienced vets had autonomy you would speed up this process. There was another case in South Devon where an experienced vet who worked in 1967 did his own autopsies, killed five sheep and was 95 per cent certain, but it was not until two days later that the main flock was put down. And in my constituency it was a further two days. That delay is too long.
  (Mr Scudamore) I worked on the 1967-68 outbreak as well. We were given 32 revolvers with which to go out and shoot animals. On health and safety grounds it would not be advisable in this day and age. Even then we rang in. We went out to farms, we saw the disease, we rang headquarters, gave a brief summary of the disease and they confirmed it. We then killed the animals that had the disease and then the slaughter teams came in the next day. There are two issues. The first one is the reporting and diagnosis and killing of the few animals with obvious disease and the second issue is getting the slaughter teams in to kill the rest of the herd. There are two blockages there. One is the evaluation of the animals and the second is the slaughter teams. We have been looking at the whole process from the time we get the report to the time animals are disposed of to try and reduce the time intervals, which I agree with you are too long and which we have got to get down.

  47. It would be very helpful if you could push that point on administering the lethal injection to very obviously infected animals. On disposal the 1969 Report is again completely clear. It says that burial is preferable to burning and it gives additional information on how much quicker burial is and a much higher proportion of those that were buried were covered within the next day or the day after, while funeral pyres take a day to build and two or three days to finish the job off. Also it warned of the risk of thermal air currents putting the virus into the atmosphere. I have a note here from the Environment Agency which says that the order of priority for foot and mouth disposal is rendering, incineration, burning on site, landfilling and burial. I would suggest to you that is an exact 180 degree mirror image of what should be happening according to the recommendations of the Report. It is the placing of burial as the last option which is causing immense frustration amongst the vets I have talked to that worked in 1967. What can you do to ensure burial goes to the top of the pile rather than the bottom of the pile?
  (Mr Scudamore) There are a number of technical issues. We would prefer burial, incineration and burning in that order because, as you say, burial is by far the easiest and quickest option on the farm. There are a number of points to make. First of all, the situation now is not like 1967—and again quoting from my own experience we dug a hole and put 30 cows in it and that was it—in that we are dealing with 300 or 400 cows or 6,000 or 7,000 sheep, so the scale of the burial operation is much, much larger than it was then. The second thing is there are issues of ground water and issues of pollution and issues of seepage from these burial sites with very large numbers of animals. It is extremely important that the water table and the quality of water being used from these areas is protected. In order to deal with this, though, we have been in discussion with the Environment Agency who have been particularly helpful and we are in discussion at two levels, first of all at the local level where as soon as a farm is diagnosed as having the disease the local contacts are made to see whether it is practical to bury them. There have been a number of farms where burial has taken place, not very many. We have also been in discussion with the Environment Agency at a much higher level to see whether the rules are completely inflexible or whether there is some degree of assistance they can give to us. Those discussions are continuing. We would, if we could in safety, wish to bury animals but again we have to look at environmental protection. I think the situation now is different to the situation in 1967-68.

  48. If you do not dispose of those animals by burying you are creating another environmental problem. The Minister last week said 25 per cent of the 205,000 animals are not buried. That is 50,000 animals lying out in wet and snowy weather at the moment with water running off them and running the virus into the waterways and brooks. You have a major pollution problem now by trying to burn them because you cannot keep them on top.
  (Mr Brown) It would be useful if the Chief Vet explains to the Committee what happens to the virus in the animals once the animals are dead.
  (Mr Scudamore) The reason we want to kill the animals is we want to stop them producing the virus. Once they are dead they are no longer producing virus and all you have left is the virus in the animals which gradually decomposes as pH changes take place and rigor mortis sets in, so eventually the virus will disappear. I agree entirely that the ideal world is to have the animals killed and destroyed and buried as fast as possible.

  49. Was the 1969 Report wrong then when it said on page 55: "Body excretions continue to exude from the carcasses and add constantly to the risk of the virus being disseminated"?
  (Mr Scudamore) The Report is correct but the virus is exuded from the carcass but not produced. In other words, there is no increased production of virus from the animal because it is dead but the virus is still there and it will still exude, yes.

  50. On what basis will the farmers be compensated because again in this Report it shows that as the number of animals came down the market value went up as it took place and it recommended staged compensation.
  (Mr Brown) The compensation rates are at market valuation and we are trying to get the payments to the farmers as quickly as possible. The average time is something like seven days.

  51. Minister, the point I am making is, as the Report points out, as the 1967 outbreak went on and reduced the number of available beasts, the price went up.
  (Mr Brown) The valuation has not fluctuated and I am determined that we treat the farmer fairly. The question you ask is a very shrewd one in the context of the sheep sector where the price has been affected. I am trying to pay the compensation at the pre-disease outbreak rate which is the higher rate.

Mr Drew

  52. Can I ask you about the valuation process. Clearly I know farmers have been quite annoyed about the criticism they took in the House of Lords last week about them delaying the process. I think it would be useful for you to take us through what happens in terms of the valuation process and what possible delays there are when agreement is not reached between parties.
  (Mr Brown) Mostly agreement is reached. I do not want to get this out of proportion. In circumstances where the state is intervening (perfectly properly) in somebody's business to take away their animals, then clearly we have to pay them the market rate as a matter of law. This is not a matter of the state asserting what the rate is. It is contestable. An independent valuer is called in to do the valuation and that in turn is subject to arbitration. It is a reasonably quick procedure but there is an arbitration procedure if there is any quarrel over the rates. The scheme that we are working on in the Department is one where we have an indicative rate, particularly for sheep, which people can either take there and then and that is the deal done, or take a separate route which needs to go to independent valuation and then arbitration. Whilst I am very keen on getting such a scheme in place, people would have to choose from the beginning one route or the other. If the valuation came in lower than the state's flat rate it would not be possible to revert to the state's flat rate scheme.

  53. If someone disagrees I know that you can go to arbitration but you have the power to slaughter before that agreement is in place. I know some farmers are wanting to value live animals rather than dead animals so there are obviously some tensions there.
  (Mr Brown) There are tensions. Valuation can be a cause of delay but it is not the main cause of delay. I do not want to get it out of proportion and nor would I want to do anything that took away the rights of people who have very good reason for wanting independent valuation, in particular people who have got pedigree herds or rare breeds that might command a premium in the market place. The same is true incidentally of animals farmed organically; we do pay for that value.

Mr Öpik

  54. The NFU and FUW are having many members who are desperate to get rid of fat stock and in some cases are willing to have their fat stock slaughtered. The problem is being in an infected area they cannot move them anywhere to be slaughtered. Can you assure me that very fast measures are being taken to resolve what is becoming a very desperate problem at the moment?
  (Mr Brown) We can get the pig market and the beef sector not working as they would ideally but something close to it under very strict conditions. There is a problem in the sheep sector, particularly in Wales, largely because exports are not only prevented but are going to be prevented for the foreseeable future. So animals not bred for the domestic market nevertheless have no other outlet so are displaced onto it. It is how we deal with those circumstances (which is not a disease control issue, it is a market issue) that I am taking a very hard look at. I want to devise a plan that not only helps the industry get through these appalling difficulties but enables it to recover to a future that probably is not the same that we have at present.

  55. Those in infected areas are desperate to get some resolution as well because it is an immediate problem.
  (Mr Brown) I will ask the Chief Vet to say something about the market that is available but it is not a complete solution to the problem.
  (Mr Scudamore) One of the problems with the infected areas is that we are allowed to move animals into slaughter houses in infected areas, but the meat has to be cross-stamped. That is using an animal health measure on a public health stamp and unfortunately the retailers and other organisations do not particularly like the idea of cross-stamped meat. The difficulty is if there is a market for that meat. If we allow those animals to move out of the infected area we are looking at the risk assessment, we are raising the risks of allowing them to move, and, equally, if they are then slaughtered they still have to be cross-stamped because they are coming from an infected area. We had exactly the same problem with swine fever. Slaughtering animals from within those areas has additional controls put on them which makes the meat generally unacceptable even though there is nothing wrong with it. Because they have the oval stamp crossed out the view is that there is something wrong with it. That is an issue we are addressing at the moment.
  (Mr Brown) I have asked the Chief Vet to explain that to the Committee because I think it is right that the full set of circumstances be set out, but let me make it very clear that I do not believe this to be a practical answer to the problem for the simple reason that it does not comply with the retailers' spec and therefore they are not willing to purchase it.

Mr Todd

  56. Bearing in mind the dominance of burning as a disposal method, how up to date are we with the science of what happens to the virus when combustion takes place and where it is dispersed in the air in thermal air currents?
  (Mr Brown) It is a fair question, but my understanding is that the temperature is very high, we use fuel on the animals to make sure they burn thoroughly, and the risk of spreading the virus through the smoke from the fire is negligible.
  (Mr Scudamore) I think the Minister has summed it up. The Northumberland Report is ambivalent and inconclusive about whether it spreads or not. We have looked at the various components and as far as we can see the risk is minimal but the problem is we have to get rid of these carcasses and there is a large number of carcasses to be removed at the moment. In a lot of this issue we are looking at the relative risk—and that is the difficulty we are facing—of leaving the carcasses to rot away as opposed to getting them removed.

Mr Jack

  57. The Chief Vet indicated that the scale of this outbreak of foot and mouth is on an altogether different level than that in 1967. There has been an enormous amount of comment in the press about difficulties with resources. We have discussed veterinary surgeons, we have discussed disposal facilities and so on and so forth. Minister, you mentioned quite rightly that MAFF twice a year carries out an exercise to develop its contingent facility. You have had 34 years without a foot and mouth outbreak. Some people listening to our exchanges might think that this preparatory exercise has still left you flatfooted, running behind the game, short of resources. Just how good is this contingency exercise in terms of its predictive quality because we are still short of resources?
  (Mr Brown) I do not think we should under-estimate the seriousness of the situation that faces us nor should we under-estimate the difficulties of dealing with a situation that is rapidly changing. Remember we have to deal with the two unknowns. We do not know where the disease will emerge nor do we know how much of it is out there. On the contingency exercise to do with the procurement of materials that seems to have worked very well. We are able to procure the lorries and the railway sleepers that we are using as wood to start the fires, we are able to procure the coal, but we are doing it in very, very large quantities. We also have to procure the mechanical diggers to dig the trenches in which to place the animals once they have been slaughtered. It is not going fast enough, I acknowledge that, but there are three essential bottlenecks: the need for more vets; the need for more skilled slaughter men; and the need to make sure that the contractors' time is effectively managed. The way we are dealing with this is we have issued the appeal for extra vets and we are trying to make better use of the veterinary time that we have by the methods the Chief Vet has described to the Committee. We are trying to make sure we make effective use of the slaughter men as well. However, as I told the Committee in my opening statement, we have already killed a similar amount of animals to the entirety of that which was involved in the 1967 outbreak. Finally there is the question of organising the disposal. We are opening up new routes including extra rendering plants, including the use of burial, including the use of landfill as well as burning on site, which is the other disposal route, and we have logistic teams in from the Army to help organise those practical tasks, but it is on a much greater scale than it was a fortnight ago.

  58. Let me ask when was the last time you role-played out a scenario or two about a foot and mouth outbreak? In the House you told us that the United Kingdom, for example, had been ahead of the game in banning imports of meat products from South Africa because you knew there was a source of foot and mouth infectivity and we wanted to be prepared, so in other words a bell might have rung, that something could get through. You mentioned tightening up on import controls. When was the last time the model was run and what kind of scenario did you have? Some people have said on the question of burial and machinery that the Army should have been brought in sooner.
  (Mr Brown) There are three things we need: vets, slaughter men, and contractors to help with the disposal. The Army is not a reservoir to any great extent of any of those things.

  59. When was the model last run? You said you updated the contingency plans once every six months.
  (Mr Brown) The contingency exercise is annual rather than six monthly, but I stand to be corrected if that is not right, and it is about the procurement of materials that would be needed in certain circumstances, in other words to make sure—

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