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

Examination of Witness (Questions 260 - 261)



  260. Where farmers live in an area which has had heavy infection but they have not themselves had the disease, they have got this immense problem of trying to carry out normal farming business, and we have seen the movement restrictions in place then gradually removed, we have seen the colossal problems because the wretched computer at DEFRA just does not work, and so that the Trading Standards have had infernal difficulties in actually trying to implement the rules. How do you draw the balance between a farmer saying, "Look, at the moment I'm suffering in three ways, my bank balance is suffering because I can't sell anything, the environment is suffering because I am massively overstocked because I haven't been able to sell anything, and the animals are suffering because there are too many of them sucking the last pebble;" how is that balance drawn?
  (Professor Anderson) It is a horrible tightrope, and the Government has been walking this, in terms of policy formulation, for some time, between the very understandable husbandry needs versus the absolute desire to get rid of this before winter, colder weather prolongs the potential survival of the virus, and I really cannot give you an answer to that, I think it has to be based on local knowledge to do with the suffering. My own instinct, I think, at the moment, is to perhaps err more on the side of restricting movements, so that we are absolutely certain that we have got rid of FMD. But that is more a question to aim at the veterinary staff who have the husbandry problems. Could I add something, Chairman, to your comment about databases, that one of the difficulties we had from day one was to do with data, and one of the real needs, as a lesson for this in the future, is that we need for agriculture in this country an integrated database which records a variety of information. For example, MAFF has a census which gives a grid reference for farms; when we first got this, we found a number of farms in the middle of the North Sea, admittedly it was not a high frequency, but there is a problem with the databases. Secondly, you need to know the grid references for the farmhouse, you need to know the number of contiguous or disparate land parcels belonging to a farm, the number of animals of different livestock species on that farm; in an ideal world, you would also have tags for everything, not just cattle, but particularly for sheep and pigs, such that, in a modern, computationally available world, you could track the movements of animals via these ear-tags. And then you would put all this in a very integrated database which would serve you very well for the next problem. It is not whether you will have another problem, you will have another problem, so you need that infrastructure in place as quickly as possible.

  Chairman: It may be some comfort to know that in Manchester, when I did regeneration, we discovered whole streets with no postcode whatsoever.

Mr Jack

  261. I am interested in terms of what we might have learned from all of the matters that we have discussed and analysed about preventative policies for the future, because we currently have, on a farm-by-farm basis, biosecurity measures which are likely to lapse as we come to the end of the outbreak. One of the other bits of evidence that we have heard is that there is not a clear indication as to how the disease has spread; there are methods by which it is spread which are known but there is no analysis to say what is the most prevalent way in which it moves around. We have also heard that there are other, potential animal diseases out there which could strike at any time. Does the work that you have done inform us as to what we should do to try, for example, to run some sort of permanent biosecurity regime which is practical and affordable but which might act as a brake, either on a future FMD outbreak or some other, hitherto unknown, problem coming in?
  (Professor Anderson) That is a very important question. Probably the thing that one should start off doing is ranking the ten most serious threats, in terms of the pathogens that could cause devastation in livestock, and I would broaden that, of course, to poultry, and also indeed to fish-farming too, because that is a significant economic activity in certain parts of Great Britain, rank these. Then each problem is different, sadly; it is like bovine TB and BSE versus foot and mouth. For foot and mouth, speed is of the essence, draconian movement restrictions, instantaneously. In other problems, speed is not necessarily of the essence, it is identifying the prime focus of spread. So, I think, with each of these ten most important diseases, and try to get some consensus from the European and international community about how this ranking should be constructed, then do some preliminary research on constructing risk maps for the UK, there are risk maps in this Nature October publication by the Imperial team for the fast-spreading type virus, and then try to build on that, to think about, for each of these diseases, what are the most important preventative strategies to have on the table so that they can be implemented on day one. With the sort of magnifying lens of hindsight, it is always very, very easy to look back at the mistakes that are made in each epidemic, whether it is AIDS, foot and mouth or BSE, and it seems ludicrous to say that a three-day delay, from the 20th to the 23rd, was crucial, but it was crucial. So each case is different, and you have to plan and have a contingency plan which is constantly updated, in light of modern scientific techniques, like can you diagnose in the field, have you got a good vaccine, how realistic is it to put in place movement restrictions for more than a certain period of time due to the husbandry of that species. Then there is also all the issues, which is a complicated but fascinating and addressable problem, about the movement of livestock once they are going to slaughter, because, often, with e-coli, they can be contaminated, so it is not just the agricultural it is the food industry as well that is important.

  Chairman: Professor Anderson, thank you very much. I think you were worth waiting for. I am sorry we kept you waiting. And I have no doubt that there will be other episodes still to come; but thank you very much indeed for today.

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