Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. Looking at the disposition here, I thought that as the temperature went up we would see things slow down, but that did not occur. During the summer we continued to have disease reported, and I do not understand how it was that the disease pool survived what should have been a natural deterrent. Can you explain why?
  (Mr Scudamore) Yes. The disease survived in animals. The problem we had—and I think this was an unprecedented outbreak in the world—was that we were dealing, in veterinary terms, on first principles, because nobody has ever had a widely disseminated sheep foot and mouth problem. They have had pig problems and cattle problems. So we are actually having to learn a lot ourselves, in veterinary terms, as to what all this means. The situation is that the virus will survive in the animals, the animals will continue to excrete that virus if they are infected, and people and vehicles can still transmit it. The difference between the summer and the winter is the temperature. As the temperature gets higher and it gets drier the virus will last for a shorter period on the pasture and in the environment. So it does mean that if you have infected sheep excreting virus in the summer the virus will last, say, for three days on the pasture, but if you have those same sheep excreting virus in the winter it might last for 30 days on the pasture. So the big advantage of the summer is it stops the environmental survival of the virus. The difficulty we faced (which I can answer questions on if they arise) was that it was in animals. The outbreaks we had over the summer were due to it coming out in animals. Just for interest, I thought you might like to have a look at the comparison with 1967 because everybody is comparing it to 1967. I would say that comparisons have to be made very carefully, because, as I said, this is an unprecedented sheep problem that has spread into cattle. The 1967/68 outbreak was basically a cattle problem, so we are looking at an entirely different problem. What is quite interesting, I think, is that the blue line, which is the outbreaks we have had, is well below the number of cases on the red line for 1967/68 at the beginning. So we actually did not reach the peak that they had in 1967/68, in spite of the difficulties we have had. What this graph does not show is the number of animals killed, and if it showed the number of animals killed the graph would be the other way round. It is quite interesting that in the early stages we had below 50 cases very quickly but the tail has gone on for a lot longer, and there are explanations for that. The reason the tail has gone on for longer is we had a series of small outbreaks—we have had a Thirsk, a Whitby, a Settle and Brecon Beacons—which has created some of the peaks and some of the troughs.

Diana Organ

  21. You have quite rightly said that on the pattern of cases confirmed we seem to have had a better experience than in 1967 when, of course, everybody knows—as you have just said—if this was the number of animals killed it would obviously be a completely different pattern. Why do you think it was that we had to kill so many more animals to get the epidemiological peak and then long tail, whereas in 1967 we managed to control the disease without having to kill so many hundreds of thousands of animals?
  (Mr Scudamore) I think there are a whole lot of reasons and, again, I can draw on my own experience. I dealt with a number of outbreaks in 1967/68 and there were 50 cows. The first thing is the size of the farms and the way in which the farms operate. In that period there were quite a lot of small farms on the Cheshire Plain that had small acreages and had 50 dairy cows, so an infected farm did not involve killing a great number of animals. The second thing, I think, is in that area a lot of the farms were single premises. One of the difficulties we faced was that some people have a lot of farms over a lot of property, and they have people going backwards and forwards with equipment etc. So there are a lot of bigger farms with parcels of land and animals all over the place. So that involved more animals as well. Thirdly, to get ahead of the disease we did have the contiguous cull, which meant we were removing contiguous farms, whereas in 1967/68 they removed some of the contiguous farms but they went and inspected the others regularly.

  22. So it was the contiguous cull which pushed the numbers up?
  (Mr Scudamore) Partly. I think it will be interesting to go back and draw the graphs of how many animals there were on the infected premises compared to 1967 with how many animals on the non-infected farms. I think it was a combination of the type of farming, the size of farms and the fact that, for example, one dealer had 13 farms, all of which were potentially infected, whereas in 1967/68 you would not have had that sort of figure, I do not think.

David Taylor

  23. What proportion of the original suspect cases where culling took place ultimately proved negative when tests were analysed by whoever analysed them?
  (Mr Scudamore) We do not know because the problem we had at the height of the outbreak was that we were removing contiguous premises and we were not sampling them. We did not have the resources to do that. We had to get them dead and removed within 48 hours. Therefore, we did not sample a lot of contiguous premises. What happened with those was that if people were visiting the farms as part of the routine work and they found disease they automatically became infected farms straight away. Secondly, when they went to slaughter on those farms, they looked at the animals and if they had clinical disease then they would convert those into infected farms. The difficulty with the other type of farm was that we did not have the serological capacity or the resources to sample the sheep, so they could well have been diseased sheep and not noticeable. Secondly, the animals could be incubating the disease and we did not have a test for that.

  24. Do you not have even just a feel for the level of false positives, if that is the right term?
  (Mr Scudamore) I am not exactly sure what figures we have got at the moment on the number of contiguous ones that became infected.

  25. I am not necessarily thinking about the contiguous, I am thinking about the cases as confirmed by the clinical examination by the vet.
  (Mr Scudamore) I am sorry, I think we might be talking at cross purposes. There were the farms we declared infected, based on clinical evidence. These were slightly different. If the vet went out to a farm and he felt there was disease on the farm, it would be confirmed on clinical grounds. We would then take samples of that farm and look at those retrospectively. I have not got the detail but I can get the figures, Chairman, but somewhere around 70/80 per cent of cattle and a lower percentage of sheep—

  26. Were confirmed.
  (Mr Scudamore) In the laboratory.

  27. So 20 per cent plus were not in 2,000 cases.
  (Mr Scudamore) Something like that. It is probably more than that. Again, I do not have the details with me. I think there are a number of issues. This is a rapidly spreading disease and we confirmed on clinical grounds. We then took samples from most of the cases to check whether the clinical diagnosis was right. There are a number of reasons why those samples would not give a positive result. The first one is they took the wrong samples, or the samples were damaged on the way to the laboratory. The virus can be damaged. The second thing is that if it was in sheep there might be old disease, and if we did not take blood samples for antibody testing we would get a negative result back. So there are reasons why on clinical examination you can confirm it but the laboratory result comes back negative. There are other cases where clinically the diagnosis was foot and mouth disease and the laboratory results were negative.

  David Taylor: Could Mr Scudamore write to you, Chairman, on what the actual figures are?


  28. We will get that information.
  (Mr Scudamore) We can give you details of the confirmed cases and the laboratory testing results.

  29. Thank you for that very helpful and interesting presentation. Can I begin by going right back to the beginning of the outbreak, where it is generally believed that the origin of the infection is in an imported product? I am not going to ask you about the particular farm where it started, because I understand the sub judice status, but I was very interested in a reply given by Mr Morley on 24 October, which is at column 267W of Hansard, listing the countries from which we import meat. The list of countries includes countries where FMD is endemic and which have had outbreaks in 1999, 2000 or 2001. He says, quite correctly, that "Community legislation permits the importation of meat from certain countries where foot and mouth disease is present but only where the disease is restricted to specific areas. Imports are permitted only from parts of the country that are free of disease or under strict conditions that ensure the meat does not come from any animal that may have come in contact with foot and mouth disease before, during and after slaughter." I look down the list and I see amongst other countries that in 1999 we imported 5,000 tonnes of meat from Zimbabwe and that in 2000 we imported 5,500 tonnes and in 2001, up to now, we have imported 4,000 tonnes of meat from Zimbabwe. You will be as familiar as we all are with the circumstances which prevail in Zimbabwe. As a vet, are you satisfied that we can have absolute confidence that meat coming from Zimbabwe fulfils those conditions set out in the International Animal Health Code of 2001? What would your advice be to ministers if they sought it?
  (Mr Scudamore) The rules for the importation of beef and meat are laid down in Community legislation, as you said. That legislation is actually based on the Northumberland Report, to a large extent, that you can import meat provided that it meets the conditions you mentioned. If we look to Zimbabwe, there is a whole series of issues that need to be checked before you can safely import beef. In fact, the people who do that checking are the European Union, through the Food and Veterinary Office. The type of checks one would want to know are: do they have a veterinary service that can deliver the certification that is needed? Secondly, what controls have they got in their state to deal with foot and mouth disease, and what assurances do we have on the tracing of that meat from the feed lot through the system into the abattoir? All of these factors have to be put together before the Zimbabwe export of beef is put on the list. The EU runs a number of lists. There is a list which lists countries which are eligible to export meat, and then that list also includes the establishment in those countries which meet the public health standards to be able to export beef to the UK. If you take all that together, along with the other requirements, which would be deboning and maturing in certain circumstances, the legal import of meat under the conditions laid down is quite adequate. The problem in Zimbabwe, I believe, has been that there is the system where the animals go from feed lots into abattoirs and there was a recent case in Zimbabwe where animals were picked up in abattoirs with the disease, which was then traced back to the feed lot. One of the questions is, do they have sufficient controls at the moment to provide the necessary assurances? That is an issue that has been discussed and studied and an issue that the European Union will take forward, quite rightly, because it does it on behalf of 15 Member States to make sure that no meat comes into the European Union which poses a risk to any of the Member States.

  30. So that if the United Kingdom had conditions within the United Kingdom which are the conditions which now exist in Zimbabwe, do you imagine that the rest of the European Union would import meat from us?
  (Mr Scudamore) The conditions would be that they would have to demonstrate freedom. It depends what sort of meat you are importing. If you are importing fresh beef that has bone in it and has not been matured, then you have to be free and it has to come from a free area and you have to be able to provide the assurance that it is free. I think that was the problem that we had at the beginning of this outbreak—whether we could provide that assurance. If it comes from a country where there is disease in that country and where they vaccinate, it is expected to come from an area where there is not active disease, the animals have to be deboned and they have to be matured to proper pH.

  31. We know what the rules are, we agree on those rules, but, after all, to control foot and mouth disease in this country you introduced some extremely draconian rule. You yourself said, when we only had three outbreaks, I think, you insisted that we should, in a sense, freeze the countryside, for very good reasons. Even then, you might have wished you had done it two days earlier. Yet we are still importing meat from countries in which we cannot have the confidence that these controls are applied with the rigour which we would like. Do you give, from time to time, advice to ministers that these need urgent review? Whenever we hear, for example, Lord Whitty on the subject we get a recital of what the Animal Health Code is but we never get any explanation of whether the Government thinks it is working.
  (Mr Scudamore) It will take a little bit of time to explain it. First of all, we have to have international surveillance. So the first thing we need to know is where we have got the disease and what is the risk that countries pose. In some countries which are free of disease we need to be assured that if they get disease in that country they report it to the international system. What will generally happen is, for example, if a country which is currently free and from which we are importing beef reports disease there will be a complete block on that country. That block will be put on by the European Union. I think, if I recollect correctly, they have done that to Zimbabwe, there is a block on meat coming in from Zimbabwe because there is a new disease problem and it needs to be looked into. International disease surveillance is the first critical point; we need a reporting system so that if countries that we import meat from pick up disease they have got a proper veterinary service, they have got proper surveillance, and as soon as they find disease they inform the international community through the OIE in Paris or through the EU in Brussels. Once that is done, Brussels would then put in place a safeguards clause, either at the instigation of a Member State or at their own instigation. There is a veterinary service in Brussels that reviews all this. So if a country that has not had disease goes down with disease, it is reported and there would be a draft decision for discussion at a Standing Veterinary Committee with a view to blocking that country or parts of that country until the position is resolved.

  32. Would you recommend to ministers that pending that decision—because, obviously, there is a process that takes a certain time—they should simply prevent the import of products into the United Kingdom as a precautionary measure?
  (Mr Scudamore) Yes, we can do that and we do recommend to ministers that if we believe it is necessary to put in safeguard measures pending a Standing Veterinary Committee discussion and production of a legal Commission decision.

Mr Jack

  33. Can I ask why, in the current circumstances, you do not believe there is any need to do something about Zimbabwe at this time?
  (Mr Scudamore) Again, I have not got the detail with me, but I believe there is a Commission decision stopping the import of meat from Zimbabwe, at the moment. Again, Chairman, I think I had better confirm that with you.

  Chairman: I quoted Zimbabwe simply because we know the internal conditions, rather than similar countries like Botswana which have endemic problems.

Patrick Hall

  34. Is it fair to say that between 1967 and this year the international surveillance system you have referred to has worked and helped to protect the EU and Britain? Have there been throughout that rather long period of time examples of the banning of importing of meat from countries where those conditions do not apply?
  (Mr Scudamore) Yes, there are a lot of examples. One of the conditions under which the EU and ourselves will import meat or products from a country is that they have to have in place a national surveillance system which enables them to identify disease and report it through into the international community. From 1967 to now there are constant reports of disease occurring. There was a case in South Africa in September of the same strain as we have got, which the South Africans reported very quickly and the South Africans brought in their own ban on export of their own volition before there was any international control put in place. So there is a lot of discussion on surveillance. There are regular meetings in Europe to discuss foot and mouth disease, there is the World Health Organisation in Paris which co-ordinates a lot of this and, in fact, gets involved in training and recording. So since 1967 we have had no outbreaks. It is interesting to look back in history, though, and see that from 1918 to 1967 this country had outbreaks of foot and mouth disease every year bar two, and from 1967 we have had one in 34 years. So I think the controls that were introduced on the importation of meat after the 1967/68 outbreak have worked very effectively.

  35. Just diverting slightly, does that mean that foot and mouth is not endemic here, it comes from abroad?
  (Mr Scudamore) Yes, I think there is no doubt that this strain has not been found in the UK. It has not been found in Europe, apart from Greece in 1996, so the strain must have come in through an imported meat product or imported meat—probably illegally.

  Mr Jack: Can I ask the Chief Vet if he has seen the National Pig Association video which registers their concerns about controls on the importation of meat both legally and illegally? If he has, does he think the video makes valid points? If it does, what has been done about it?


  36. If you have not we will let you off.
  (Mr Scudamore) Thank you very much. I have not actually seen it but some of my people have seen it. I think there are valid points about importation. The first question is legal importation. If it is legally imported, meets the conditions and comes in with the correct certification then the risk is minimal. So the question then arises what is the importation that poses a risk? That importation probably falls into three categories: there are the private importations by individuals who bring meat back with them; there is large-scale private imports where people bring suitcases back with them and then there are illegal imports where people are actually trading in illegal meat. So there are actually three different issues which all need to be addressed. We are well aware of the potential problems in this and a number of initiatives have been put in place in terms of publicity, in terms of looking to see how enforcement can be altered, in terms of developing cross-departmental work to look to see how we can deal with these three different issues, because they do crop up in different areas. Some will occur through airports. The other problem is on illegally imported meat. We have somewhere round about 2.5 million containers coming into this country every year, and to open all of those would not be a practical proposition. Even if you opened them, the meat, if it was illegal, could be at the back of the container, so you would have to turn them all out. What we are having to look at is what is a practical proposition in terms of enforcement. We are actively aware of this and I think these are issues that will be discussed by the various inquiries and lessons to be learned.

  37. So Minister Brown, who told us at the end of the summer that new plans were going to come forward, was still in the thinking stage about new plans, was he?
  (Mr Scudamore) There are a lot of plans coming forward, but I am afraid I cannot list them all at the moment. There are initiatives coming forward on publicity, on enforcement, on survey work—

  38. When will we have the joy of reading these plans?
  (Mr Scudamore) Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, but I cannot give you a date. Again, I will have to write and confirm exactly where we are.

  Chairman: Some people get their joy in fairly precarious ways, it has to be said.

Mr Todd

  39. The video which Michael has referred to and the associated documents showed massive confusion between the various agencies that seek to control the import into this country of potentially illegal meat. It even showed that those who do this can escape without penalty when there are offences detected. It seemed reasonably plain to most objective observers that relying on, often, ill-funded local authorities, who attach little significance to the small port or the import activity for which they are responsible, is clearly a mistaken approach. Have you sought to give some advice to ministers as to the obvious loopholes that have been exposed in this process?
  (Mr Scudamore) Yes, as I said, there have been interdepartmental discussions because I think it is, as you quite rightly point out, an issue which falls between different departments. The FSA have an interest in public health aspects, we have an interest in the animal health aspects, then you have got the enforcement through Customs and local authorities, border inspection posts and various groups of people. I think what we are working towards is what do we need—to look at the three categories of meat—to detect illegal imports? How do we actually discourage them and how do we deal with them? Enforcement is one of the major issues which ministers will be having to look at.

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