Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 216-239)




  216. Minister, thank you for agreeing to come to see us. We know you have to get away to Luxembourg to the Council of Ministers and we have agreed that we will get you on your way, 5.30 I think is the agreement, and we will make sure we will follow that. It is nice to see you, and Mr Scudamore. We wondered whether you had been inadvertently buried, as it were, because Professor King appeared to be doing all of the media stuff and the Defence Secretary appears to have been very much on our screens recently. We were just frightened that some terrible fate had overtaken you. We are glad to see that you are alive and, presumably, as well as can be expected in the circumstances.
  (Mr Brown) Thank you for those good wishes.

  217. Do you want to say anything to start with, because in the past you have done?
  (Mr Brown) Because of the Parliamentary recess I have not been able to update Parliament, as I am trying to do on a regular basis. Perhaps it would be useful if I bring the Committee up to date and make some introductory points about vaccination, which is the main purpose of this hearing. Perhaps I can begin by providing an update. The total of confirmed cases as at 2.30 today stood at 1,440, that is an increase of five from last night's total. There were nine confirmed cases yesterday. I have said on previous occasions that this is an exceptionally serious outbreak and that eradication will be a long haul. That remains the position, but after two tireless months, there is now evidence that efforts are bearing fruit. The continuing downward trend in the daily number of cases (from a daily average of 43 per day in the week ending 1 April, down to 16 cases per day in the week ending of yesterday, 22 April). Following serological testing of all of the farms in the relevant areas, we have now been able to lift the infected area status from six areas entirely (Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire and North Somerset). I expect others to follow in the days and weeks ahead. In other places, based on the latest veterinary risk assessments, we have been able to scale back the area affected. Both developments have released farms from the restrictions associated within infected areas—over 9,000 farms by last night (Sunday). With effect from today, farmers within the infected area will, under licence, be able to sell stock

to abattoirs within those same areas. Government policy has at all times been based on the best scientific and veterinary advice. The advice remains that we need to pursue the 24/48 hour cull vigorously. I know the Committee are well aware of the debate surrounding vaccination. The vaccination strategy would complement, not replace, culling, which must continue until the disease is eradicated. The Government is considering a cattle vaccination strategy in North Cumbria, and possibly Devon, because of the specific circumstances in each case, but any vaccination programme would need to be supported by a substantial majority of the farming community, by the veterinary profession, by the wider food industry and by consumers. Discussions are continuing, but I have to tell the Committee that the necessary support for this policy is not yet there and the case for vaccination recedes as the number of daily cases declines. We have made good progress towards clearing backlogs on both slaughter and the disposal, and only in Devon is there a backlog of animals awaiting disposal, there are over 100,000 animals. In all other areas any backlog has been cleared, or will be within the next day or two. We are working closely with the Department of Health to take account of public health issues. In every case we are using disposal routes which are the safest and most effective in the circumstances. Over the last fortnight we have also devoted much time to addressing the implications for animal welfare and to solving the problems before Easter. Farmers now have several options available when faced with welfare problems. We have issued over 52,000 licences for animal welfare movements and relaxed some of the conditions for licensed programme operators to give greater flexibility on the ground. We are getting on top of the backlog of applications for livestock welfare disposal schemes and are involving the RSPCA to highlight serious welfare problems and help us prioritise cases. The situation will be further eased by the lifting of restrictions on movement to slaughter in infected areas, which I mentioned earlier on. I hope to make a full statement to House on Thursday, including the report of the outcome of this week's European Union Council of Agricultural ministers and bilateral discussions with my Dutch counterpart. There are no easy options for eradicating foot and mouth, nor is there any workable vaccination strategy that removes the need to cull the disease out. I hope that is helpful to you.

  218. Thank you for that. If I can make a preliminary comment, you said you were scaling back the infected areas, which we are very pleased about, but there is still the problem of farmers knowing when this has happened. The Government is still terribly dependent on websites. I have to emphasise, in my constituency farmers are not electronically geared-up. You very kindly scaled it back in my constituency but nobody knows. Some farmers do not know whether there have been infected sites or not. There must be a way of communicating with farmers, which is not just posting on the website.
  (Mr Brown) With respect, Chairman, I do not think this is generally true. If it is an issue in your constituency we will look at it. The whole purpose of having representatives of the NFU inside our regional headquarters is to make sure that we are liaising properly with the farming community. Issues such as the one you described are picked up very quickly and we try and get the information out by telephone if we cannot do it any other way. If there is a local issue I will look at that.

  219. There are just two or three questions. I would like to start with vaccination inevitably. About a fortnight ago you very kindly laid on a seminar for Members of Parliament at which the chief protagonist was Doctor Donaldson. The whole thrust of that was extremely hostile to the case for vaccination. In a nutshell he said, "Vaccination in the teeth of an epidemic does not work". That was the heart of what he had to say. Then, if I may say so, Mr Scudamore seems to have slightly disappeared off the screen and Professor King emerges. A little while after that Professor King tells us there is a very strong case for vaccination and the Government is minded to vaccinate. The next day Professor King tells us that the epidemic is firmly under control. You come before us today and you say that the case for vaccination is receding and, in any case, vaccination is an adjunct to slaughter, not an alternative to slaughter—we may have to probe what that means—you can understand why there is a bit of confusion, can you?
  (Mr Brown) Not really. The Chief Scientist is heading up the Group.

  220. We are going to see him on Wednesday.
  (Mr Brown) That pulls together the work of four separate research organisations and it is designed to inform the Government of the strategic approach to the outbreak by modelling its likely progress. One can only get data out of these mathematical models when data is put in. So Professor King's group have been able to give us very helpful advice on how the epidemic is progressing and also what strategies are necessary to bring it under firm control and to extinguish it. He has made it very clear that the key intervention is the 24 hours report to slaughter time and has urged us to make that our priority. The second intervention, which was urged upon us right from the beginning, and I think is right, is to make sure that we take out dangerous contact animals from the contiguous premises as quickly as we can, and as far as the contiguous premises are concerned, to aim for this within the 48 hour target. That is the advice. Professor King has also advised on a vaccination strategy. He is not recommending vaccination primarily for disease control reasons. As I understand it, the primary reason for recommending vaccination is that it would enable some animals, particularly cattle in Cumbria, and potentially Devon as well, to live rather than die.

  221. How does that become adjunct to the slaughter policy?
  (Mr Brown) It is not a replacement for the slaughter policy. As the Committee will know, the conventional approach to the use of vaccination strategies in the disease outbreak is to put a ring round the area of infectivity, and that is not really a strategy that is applicable in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The problem is outbreaks from existing areas of infectivity rather than a steady rolling-out of the area of infectivity. The second use that could be made of vaccination is to damp the disease down while it is culled out. However, either of these strategies—using it to reinforce a ring-fence around the area of infectivity or using it to cull out — both require the animals to die. Of course farmers are very resistant to this, for perfectly understandable reasons. They describe it as a death sentence over their animals. What we have had under consideration is an alternative strategy, which is vaccination in the most densely infected areas, with the intention of letting the vaccine last for a year, depending on the strength of the dose that was given, or being reinforced after six months. That is an option that would be open, with the intention of the vaccine wearing out over time and the animal living on, of course, not at the risk of infectivity because the other infected animals would have been culled out and the virus would no longer be present.

  222. You have been talking about vaccination for a long time but it was always in the context of the subsequent slaughter of the vaccinated animals. The change is that this would be a measure which would make that unnecessary, but there would be for a short term penalties, presumably, of the status of the herds, the status of the region and possibly the marketability of the product of the animal.
  (Mr Brown) That last issue is absolutely crucial. It is true to say that the examination of different vaccination strategies, whether to have one or not at all, has moved with the nature of the disease outbreak itself. We are in a rapidly changing situation. At the beginning of this I do not think anybody would have considered a vaccination strategy necessary. As the spread of the disease and the intensity of it, particularly in Cumbria and Devon, became apparent, the different vaccination strategies were examined very carefully indeed. For the strategy I have just outlined to succeed there are a number of things that are required, as I said in my opening statement. The most important, of course, is the support of the farming community. This is a very difficult issue. I regard it as essential to have the support of the farming community and, indeed, the industry to try and eliminate the disease. It would be a much harder job if we were fighting amongst ourselves rather than fighting the disease. That support from the farming community for the vaccination strategy is just not there. There are a separate set of concerns, every bit as important but, perhaps, not as much discussed in the public domain. That is the support of consumers for products from vaccinated animals: primarily dairy and also, of course, beef from the suckler animals or, indeed, animals that are being finished for slaughter.

  223. Thank you. If I may ask one more question, this is to do with the relationship between the prices for the welfare scheme and the market prices. You have introduced a scheme today whereby animals can go from infected areas to slaughter within the infected areas and for human consumption. Again, I am afraid, there is a gap of about ten days between the announcement of the intention to introduce the scheme and it becoming available. There is a long gap there. I have talked to some of the meat processors and abattoirs in my part of the world. The problem is, if you take sheep, if you send your animals to slaughter for human consumption they are getting about 235 pence per kilo dead weight. If you are sending them to the livestock scheme they are bulked up, weighed together with wool, water and anything else which happens to be attaching to them, and that is equivalent to 275 pence to 285 pence live weight, so what incentive have farmers got, other than backlogging the welfare scheme, to send animals for slaughter for human consumption when you have this sort of social security network of the welfare scheme, which you did warn at an earlier stage could be priced too generously and could become not a scheme of last resort, but a scheme of first resort?
  (Mr Brown) It is not the Government's intention to create that. I am certain we must not do so. You are right. There are particular difficulties in the sheep sector. The issues are not as acute in pigs or in cattle where, by and large, we have managed to get the trade back to working. As I said before, it is unfair to say to some form of normality, under strict licence and control. I am meeting my Dutch counterpart tomorrow morning at 9 o'clock to discuss welfare schemes and relationships between the different types of welfare schemes, particularly those that involve taking the animals to slaughter. We will see what comes of that. The Government is keeping the rates that we pay very carefully under review. I do not want to say much more about the rates, that is market sensitive, except to say that it is absolutely not the Government's intention to establish a false or an alternative market. Let me also say, the welfare scheme is not intended to operate as an alternative market. The Government's routes for the treatment of animals whose welfare is compromised is as follows, firstly to look at whether or not the animals can be safely moved; we have several licensing schemes which are designed to facilitate that. It cannot be done in all cases, for disease control reasons, but where it can be done that is the first route that should be approached. The second route is to see if the animals can be managed where they are, and that is something that we also ask the farming community, along with their own veterinary advisers, to examine. It is only if that cannot be done that animals are eligible for entry into the welfare scheme. A private sector vet has to sign a form which says that the animal's welfare is compromised.

  224. It is not difficult to get that.
  (Mr Brown) There has been a backlog for the scheme. We have asked the RSPCA to work with us as professional advisers and to advise on the prioritisation of cases.

  225. Thank you.
  (Mr Brown) It is not simply saying, "I would rather go to the Government scheme, thank you very much".

Mr Todd

  226. Trading standards have to administer the new movement/slaughter scheme opening today, is that not right?
  (Mr Brown) The scheme is open today but people have been prepared for it because they knew it was coming.

  227. It is administered by county trading standard officers.
  (Mr Brown) Yes, it is.

  228. When were they given details of the scheme?
  (Mr Brown) I cannot give you the day when—

  229. I can give you an answer of when they were not given it, which was by 4 o'clock on Friday afternoon. When I was attempting to extract the information to assist a farmer in my area, the Derbyshire Trading Standards had not received that information and were not able to proceed with any movement authorisations for today.
  (Mr Brown) There is nothing new or novel about this, they should have had the details.

  Mr Todd: They advised us they had not yet been issued the details and LACOTS were still in discussion with the Ministry.

  Chairman: North Yorkshire said the same.

Mr Todd

  230. That was something which was confirmed by Helene Hayman's office on Friday afternoon. It was desperate, last minute stuff which meant that those who wished to take advantage of this scheme, and many farmers do, were at a considerable disadvantage.
  (Mr Brown) I would not want to make too much of this. After all, this is a permanent change which is intended and the area of infectivity will get smaller and smaller as we are able to clear areas of disease. I regret that has happened. After all the arrangements I was putting in place, and I believe are in place and should be in place, not only replicate what is happening in the unaffected parts of the United Kingdom but are confined to these now large joined-up zones of infected premises. The purpose of it is within zones that are more compromised than Great Britain as a whole, is to ensure the move from farm holding to abattoir — a journey which in the circumstances, as long as it is properly controlled, ought to be perfectly secure.

  231. It does highlight this difficulty that there is a long lead time between Baroness Hayman announcing the new scheme for 23rd and actual mechanisms being in place to do something about it, which meant that although the scheme was open as of today, frankly, it would be very, very difficult to obtain anything as of today.
  (Mr Brown) As I said before, in the context of our other schemes, the whole purpose of announcing it in advance is so people can prepare for it and get arrangements in place.

  232. That is exactly what my farmer was unable to do. She attempted to book an abattoir for today, to sort out transport and was unable to do so because trading standards were not able to say exactly when they would be able to okay that particular movement.
  (Mr Brown) That point has been put to me. Clearly that was not the intention. In any case, I would not make too much of it because the purpose of the changes announced is that they are permanent, and the areas move from being infected to being cleared-up areas and, then, uninfected as we are able to put the clear-up regime in place.

Mr Drew

  233. Can you explain the paradox to me that conventional farmers, in the main, do not want a vaccination strategy, whereas organic farmers seem to have signed up to a vaccination strategy, unless I have it wrong?
  (Mr Brown) The Soil Association are advocates of a vaccination strategy, they believe it is right and they say that dairy animals that meet their own accreditation standards could perfectly be vaccinated and used for organic standard products, including milk. The Organic Farmers' Association in Scotland are passionately opposed to vaccination. All of the devolved authorities—remember they have a disproportionate amount of the United Kingdom's livestock, for reasons we all understand—are all firmly opposed to the vaccination strategy. The leaders of all of the farming unions, without exception, oppose a vaccination strategy, although I think the Country Landowners and Business Association is slightly more open, and no doubt you can ask them that for themselves. The reasons are essentially twofold. The unions believe that a vaccination strategy compromises trade, and by that they do not mean international trade, they are worried about the impact on the domestic market and that they will, therefore, pay a price for it in the market place at best. Second, they worry that a vaccination strategy will enable the virus to live on, because vaccinated animals can act as carriers, and they believe that such a strategy might perpetuate the disease rather than accelerate its coming to an end. If a vaccination strategy was to be carried forward by the Government, all the principal farming unions argue that the vaccinated animals should be quickly culled out rather than be allowed to live on. That is their case, as I understand it. The alternative case is that in an area of intense infectivity one could vaccinate the animals once, heavily, and enable them to live on as the rest of the outbreak was brought firmly to a complete conclusion, and then allow the vaccine to run out. In other words, for the animals not to be protected in a year's time. There would then be no need to protect the animal because, of course, the disease would have been brought to a conclusion. That is the case for using a vaccine, in other words to put the culling of animals on hold, for the animal to live on and continue its normal working life. It is an attractive option but given the uncertainties, in particular the difficulties in forecasting consumer response and, therefore, retailer response, and given the overwhelming hostility of devolved authorities and devolved farming unions, the National Farmers' Union and, indeed, others in the supply chain, it seems to me that there is going to be a lot of resistance to it as well.

  234. I am trying not to play Devil's advocate here. Given the reaction in this country of many consumers to meat hormones, has any serious research been done actually admitting to the fact that this meat has come from vaccinated stock? Is that likely to be something that consumers are going to rush for or are they very much against it?
  (Mr Brown) There is market research on this. It tells a fairly consistent story. The retailers have said to us very firmly that the product should not be differentiated in the market place. The advice from the Food Standards Agency is there is no food safety reason why either meat from a vaccinated animal or milk from a vaccinated dairy herd should have to be differentiated in the market place. That is the food safety advice to the Government, as I understand it. The retailers are saying, very strongly, that if a product were differentiated then consumers would think that the product from a vaccinated animal was somehow of a different order. Let me emphasise it again, it is not in scientific terms, as I understand it, but that is what they believe the consumer perception would be. The Consumers' Council in Scotland called for differentiation of the product and independent labelling. I think the Consumers' Association in England has just called for differentiation, without saying labelling, although it is difficult to see how else this could be done. There is focus group work which suggests that something like 40 per cent of consumers, when prompted, would like to see products differentiated in the market place, in other words to exercise a choice. Whether or not there are any rational reasons or health reasons for doing that, they still wanted the choice. It is this that leads many retailers to be nervous about vaccination, although I ought to make it clear to the Committee the retailers have said to us that they will support the Government in the policy that we adopt.

  235. If I can move on and look quickly at the rationale for vaccination and where it seems to have come from, I do not know if I am wrong on this, is the threat of the turn out of stock in the coming weeks. Whereas we can be seen to be on top of it, certainly in my part of the country, in Gloucestershire, there is always an added risk where animals are going out on to grasslands, and so on. Can you, perhaps, explain to us where the vaccination strategy is in relation to that stock?
  (Mr Brown) The risk is less. As far as the vacated grasslands are concerned, the virus needs a host. The prospects of it surviving for a great length of time in an open field are pretty remote. The risk, of course, is that when cattle are turned out of their winter quarters on to grassland, they will mix with sheep that may still be carrying the virus and then you will see an upturn in the cases amongst cattle. There are pretty obvious things that can be done to reduce that risk: keeping the animals housed for longer, making sure that they are grazed separately from sheep and not on the pastures of sheep that were recently vacated. There is other advice on bio-security arrangements given to farmers and, indeed, I have asked that it be given to farmers, particularly in the hotspots, and made more generally available. It has to be said that in the areas of most intense infectivity we have also culled out a large number of sheep. From memory, in the North Cumbria area of something like 1,900 livestock holdings in the infected area we have culled out 1,600 there are only 300 still holding sheep. That is my understanding from memory. Those figures are very broad. It does paint a picture that the risk is less than it might have been thought to be if we were at the start of this outbreak.

  236. What we are talking about here is two parts of the country, Cumbria initially, and maybe Devon, and what would be the success, or otherwise, of bringing in a vaccination strategy. Clearly you have done a risk analysis, are you limiting it to two parts of the country? What are the sort of things you are saying to farmers, which is obviously measuring risk, successive or otherwise, which would mean that the Government would go along this route?
  (Mr Brown) It would mean that something like up to 95,000 cattle in Cumbria would have the prospect of survival, arguably, enhanced. That is effectively the case for it. The truth is that the farming community is divided. The leadership of the main farming organisations are opposed and are supported, I think, by the Policy Committee of the National Farmers' Union. Many individual farmers support a vaccine strategy, provided certain assurances can be given. Those with valuable dairy herds, provided they were certain that the milk once pasteurised was not going to be compromised in the market place, see the attraction of a vaccination strategy. Those with valuable pedigree herds, by and large, oppose a vaccination strategy and prefer to rely on bio-security arrangements, very tough bio-security arrangements, for their own animals. This is because they believe they are specialist and very valuable products and will be compromised in the market place by vaccination. Whether that is a reasonable belief or not is not for me to say, but this is the belief that is held by farmers, and it is, after all, their business. They seem to oppose a vaccination strategy. The issue is divisive within the farming community and the bottom line is this, without there being some consensus or near to a consensus—you will never get an absolute consensus—I think it would be very, very difficult, indeed, to force a strategy in. Remember, feelings are running pretty high anyway. It has been a terrible thing for the livestock industry, particularly where the outbreaks have occurred. Very hard decisions have been made and debates are taking place daily about the difference between the interests of individual farming businesses and the interests of the livestock farming community as a whole, in relation to the cull in particular. People see the case for it in general but always hope that the specific policy, which is a tough policy, will not have to be applied to them. To inject yet a new area of dispute into what is a difficult situation is, I must say, I think wrong and would probably not help matters.

  237. What about rare breeds? Is there a logical case where you are talking about breeds that clearly may be in some danger of being lost?
  (Mr Brown) This is an important and a separate question and there is a distinction between special breeds, in particular the hefted sheep that work the hills and are territorial, and the breeds that are truly rare. The advice I have had from the National Sheep Association, from John Thorley, has been very clear. He does not want sheep vaccinated. He says that very, very strongly, indeed. Is it possible to devise a strategy for managing special breeds, like the herdwicks, there are some examples right across the country, without using the contiguous cull? Yes, it is. We are looking very carefully, indeed. There is a meeting which the Parliamentary Secretary is taking today to look at these strategies. The strategy that I find attractive, although it is not for me to dictate (it has to be done in discussion with others) is where animals are territorial and are extensively farmed we leave them on their territory and then test them when they come down in the autumn. Of course if they have the disease they will have to be culled out, but it is quite possible they will not.


  238. It would be quite interesting if the virus had gone through some of the fell sheep.
  (Mr Brown) It is more likely to do that with adult, hardy fell sheep than it is with pigs or dairy herds. The disease does react differently with different species. The main impact that it has on the breeding problem of sheep is that it causes them to abort, the mortality rate is something like 80 per cent, which is a pretty serious compromise in breeding sheep.

Mr Paterson

  239. As I understand it, you are not going to touch the sheep at all.
  (Mr Brown) That is not decided yet, but that is the strategy I am attracted to for the hefted flocks that are extensively farmed on the fells. Where they have a territory that is discrete to them, the risk of them spreading the disease outside their own territory, with them being extensively farmed, is of a lesser order than that from more intensively farmed sheep.

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