Friday, 30 November 2007

Chickening Out

The attempt to discredit organic production and deny poultry breeders the right to vaccinate against bird flu may have deeper implications.
In America, a website called The Center for Global Food Issues, a project of the conservative think-tank the Hudson Institute, unashamedly promotes biotech in agriculture and tries hard to debunk organic production. "When will the world realize that Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund are trying to roll back modern civilization ...?" it asks.
Now it is saying:
"Let's give up on that "free-range" label and keep ourselves and birds protected from the avian flu. Keep them indoors."
Warmwell has already received a worried email from a reader in America asking about the validity of such CGFI claims as
".. indoor birds are more comfortable than their free-range cousins because they're protected from hot sun and fierce winter. ...indoor birds are unlikely to get or spread the flu to each other, or to us".
It will be remembered that the government's chief scientist and biotech advocate, Sir David King, has always led the charge to blame wild birds for H5N1. From the start of the bird flu scare at Holton in February he blamed wild birds as the source of the infection. Last year he declared that bird flu could mean the end of free-range and organic chicken and turkey farming (link).

As Magnus Linklater wrote,
"What is disturbing about so many of the statements coming out of Defra about the need to bring free-range flocks indoors, to end organic farming, to "monitor" but never to introduce vaccination - is that they are made by people with little first-hand knowledge of the one science they should be on top of: virology."
In April 2006 an email from two virologists warning that the UK still had insufficient or no H5N1 influenza vaccine stocks, pointed out that it is essential to have clinical virologists working alongside veterinarians, advising the UK government. They made it clear, back in April 2006, that "the failure to prepare reflects a lack of understanding of viral disease in DEFRA and government and has implications for human disease risk."

Now we see that, following the preliminary epidemiologic report into the Norfolk H5N1 outbreak, both wild birds and organic farming are again back in the firing line. Although all 31 references to wild birds in the report make clear that H5N1 infection has not been detected "nor have any incidents of high mortality been observed in the area" the epidemiological report says the Norfolk strain had a 99.8% identity to the isolates from "wild birds" in June and July 2007 in the Czech Republic. However, in an email today, Alan Beat of, quotes the FAO report which says that the Czech outbreak
"started on a commercial turkey farm on 21st June holding 1800 birds. On 10th July, a single infected dead wild mute swan was found some distance away."
Although the epidemiological report mentions the single mute swan it does not mention the conclusion of the FAO investigation that the source was more likely to have been the turkey farms - i.e. not to the farms via birds but the other way round:
"the disease has spilled over from the turkey farms in the Czech Republic resulting in wild bird infections."
Yet Fred Landeg told journalists: "At the present time wild birds, most likely migratory species from central Europe, cannot be ruled out as the source of infection" The BBC's first obedient headline? "Flu cases 'linked to wild birds". It is both interesting and reassuring that this has now changed to "Bird flu cause probe inconclusive"
Even more heartening is the campaign by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall to put pressure on the poultry industry to raise its standards. Chicken Out! is being led by River Cottage locals, especially in and around Axminster, who are boycotting intensively-reared chickens and choosing free range instead. This is a splendid initiative and people are signing up all the time.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

"an odd way to save money"

The latest way DEFRA intends to save money: a £300 million "voluntary retirement" scheme to any DEFRA employee over 50 who wants to jump ship.
There is much jostling on the decks.
As one insider, quoted by the Evening Standard comments:
"They can't believe their luck. There are retirement parties all the time stretching into next spring. It seems an odd way to save money but no one is complaining. Some intend to take the money and then work in the private sector."
£300 million is also the amount of the fine Defra was ordered to pay by the EU for its shambolic handling of the RPA

£220,000 was the sum in tenders received in October 2006 for vital repairs to Pirbright

£520 million is what the failure to make the Pirbright site secure cost the sheep industry

£3.7 billion is, according to Lord Rooker, DEFRA's overall budget

The headline chosen for the Evening Standard: "Staff offered £40,000-a-year for life 'bribes' to quit shamed ministry Defra" Interesting that only the word "bribes" appears inside inverted commas; the word "shamed" can stand naked and alone. And as the ship of shame glugs its way further and further down into the muddied waters we are left wondering what will become of those so entangled by DEFRA's controlling ropes that they are unable to take any of the actions needed to save themselves.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Competent authority

Government cuts, mergers and attempts to save money are all horribly and visibly coming home to roost. Something has got to change before we all explode with frustration. Has not getting involved in politics become the new political correctness? Is that why we let this destructiveness continue? 62% of Britons aged 18-24 now "believe in" horoscopes, apparently. But considerably more of us seem to have been content to believe at least six impossible things before breakfast. We believed that experts were running the country, that newspapers told the truth, terrorists were all around us, government secrecy was necessary for security, processes were too complicated to understand and any kind of public protest both fruitless and really rather embarrassing.

But when people start noticing that the Emperor's credibility has finally lost its elastic and is crumpled around his ankles, this is surely a time to act. Our docile handing over to such a naked dullard the responsibility for our lives needs looking at. It is time to reclaim common sense.

The personal details of 25 million people sent from the HMRC offices at Washington's Waterview Park to the National Audit Office by courier disappeared, taking with them with the very last shred of confidence in a government ID scheme. Had the HMRC not heard of Access Control? The technology exists to make systems safe. But then, cutting edge technology seems only to have reality in the private sector along with management skill, creative thinking and rigour. In the public sector what we see are cuts.

The Treasury has funded small-minded policies with a big tight fist. As more cuts are made and more jobs go, morale of the staff reaches an all time low. This has been true at DEFRA for years now. In a Department that has become more and more politicised, the rank and file of DEFRA staff have kept their heads down near their boots - and, from all we hear, their spirits have been even lower.

But the Army, Navy and Air Force have much greater power to raise concern. When no fewer than five ex-service Chiefs angrily and very publicly deplore cost cutting, lack of understanding and government contempt for its personnel, newspaper headlines start seriously to reflect a national unease. Lord Boyce in the House of Lords, put it rather well:
"The smoke and mirrors work of the Government and, in particular the Treasury, actually means that the core defence programme has had no effective budget rise at all."
Sure enough, up popped Des Browne to proclaim on the Today programme that black is white, day is night and
"We have in the UK the second highest defence budget in the world in real terms."
These real terms are as real as Hilary Benn's commitment to meat and two veg. - or his assertion that "Working in partnership with the farming community has been an integral part of our approach..." There has been precious little partnership with anyone in the past years and funding has been the meagre pittance that a Treasury, wholly indifferent to rural and farming concerns, has seen fit to toss to the despised Department. It is Treasury cuts, mainly overseen by our present Prime Minister, that have resulted in our lamentable animal health record: a woeful lack of resources has given us a third rate level of expertise, lack of state of the art diagnostics, rotten surveillance and a defensive attitude from the heirarchy that will brook no criticism.

Meanwhile, animals go up in smoke and farmers go out of business.

Which all brings us back to the home life of our own dear DEFRA and the spectacle of Helen Ghosh, Defra's Permanent Secretary of State, and her attempt to repackage the swingeing cuts that everybody knows are going to be made. Wearing one of her Department's white exterminator's suits she bludgeoned the English language into insensibility:
"It's just a reprioritising exercise against a new strategy."
And poor Hilary Benn, looking more and more like a bewildered aunt from the world of P.G.Wodehouse, has also caught the DEFRAspeak virus. Of the plan to get farmers to bail out DEFRA after so much expensive failure (the RPA managed to send out a cheque for one penny this week) Mr Benn talks of farmers becoming "much more deeply involved in the key policy and operational decisions" and that formal proposals on disease cost and responsibility sharing will be put out for consultation ‘before Christmas’.

Spare us the consultation.Of course those who pay for them must be deeply involved in "key policy and operational decisions". And for this to happen we need to get free from the tyranny of a Department that murders animals and the English language.

The EU likes to refer to "competent authorities" but this is now a contradiction in terms. Europe's massive one-size-fits-all mentality needs some trenchant downsizing. We need a panel of independent experts who understand the science and technology, can manage people and funding and who are not allergic to change. Such a new kind of group to keep things grown-up, rigorous and efficient is long overdue. Its members must be seen to be independent of the government and they must, with DEFRA but not answerable to DEFRA, set the Performance Bechmarks by which policy is judged. We need them - and they need clout enough to tell DEFRA where it needs to go.

Post script. Cuts at DEFRA? Not for officials in Suffolk

When Vincent Cable spoke in the House of Commons about the 24 billion pounds-worth of public money used to bail out Northern Rock, he pointed out that this amounts to £900 for every taxpayer. Our money, it seems, can be found when it is needed. And where it has also been needed lately, apparently, is to accommodate DEFRA officials in some of Suffolk's most prestigious and expensive hotels more than 20 miles from the site of the H5N1 outbreak. The East Anglian Daily Times tells us that the officials are staying at the Ickworth Hotel in Bury St Edmonds. This is a hotel which charges £310.00 for dinner, bed and breakfast in a "standard double" room. DEFRA is not revealing how many of its staff are staying there nor what the price tag will be. Its "accommodation needs" are handled by the private company,Expotel.

At a time when family and tenant farmers are in such deep distress, and DEFRA is being pressured to make savings of £270m. this decision to flaunt such wads of cash might be considered unwise.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Paying the Piper

Paying the piper should mean calling the tune - not reluctantly dancing to the government's limited repertoire - so often a danse macarbre.

This is what, in DEFRASpeak, the government would have us believe:
"Government works in partnership with stakeholders to help us arrive at policy decisions that reflect a robust, fair and cost-effective approach taking into account and balancing stakeholder perspectives..."
In a pig's ear.

DEFRA listens to farmers only if they happen to be one of the so-called "core" stakeholders. Do most farmers have any idea who these people are, let alone feel represented by them? As for other 'stakeholders', prepared to give up time to attend Defra meetings and offer views and advice, too often one hears complaints about meetings getting scheduled at oddly inconvenient times, papers arriving too late to be read beforehand, minutes not being taken, meetings not efficiently chaired, questions not answered, time wasted and outcomes disappointing.

DEFRA's management skills, in short, are non existent. Such incompetence and contempt.

And yet it could all be so different. The best blueprint I have seen on the subject of Industry Cost Sharing is the paper by Roger Breeze with its suggestion that 'Performance Benchmarks' should be established for both sides. If the government failed in any of its parts of the bargain, failed to meet its Performance Benchmarks, then payment could not be demanded. If farmers failed to keep to what had been jointly decided then there would be pre-agreed penalities.

There would be accountability.

The serious and possible suggestion is this:
With all Performance Benchmarks met, by government and industry, the goal is to snuff out an outbreak in two weeks after diagnosis by active commitment of all sections of the industry and related industries.
Such a levy would give cause for real optimism. All those involved in farm to fork food production would share responsibility for safety and disease control.

But what farmers fear is that it will not be like this at all. 2007 has been a relentlessly terrible year. Can anyone deny that trust is at an all time low; confidence in the Ministry long since lost in a fog of disillusionment? If a levy on farmers goes ahead without genuine power sharing it will be taxation without representation at an almost undreamed of level.

With a savage twist of the knife, the Ministry will be telling the very farmers it has bossed, bamboozled and bankrupted that they themselves must pay for all that threatens to put paid to their very existence.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Consider the birds of the air

Poor old farmers. Can there be a more smeared and sneered at group in Britain - or one that has had so much thrown at it in so short a time? And are journalists really unable to see a difference between farmers (people who farm)and those grotesque agri-barons who treat animals as mere parcels of protoplasm to be crammed behind the high walls of factories? Or is it all part of some campaign smiled upon by Downing Street and upheld by Fleet Street that has kept public sympathy away from farmers for so long? In the Observer, for example, we read yet another paragraph implying that farmers bring problems upon themselves:
".... Some disease outbreaks, however, have been caused by clear lapses in biosecurity on farms. The bird flu found at a Bernard Matthews plant last year was traced back to its plant in Hungary..."
The Holton outbreak had nothing to do with 'farms' and everything to do with the dangerous and miserable practice of turning animal husbandry into dreary mass production.

So many disease outbreaks are making people wonder more and more about the health of the animals themselves - and they are beginning to question the ethics of the huge producers. Farmers who farm are thus a problem for the factory barons and they are "demanding" change. Those enterprises that still make contact with nature make them "incensed" apparently. Consider the birds of the air. Valerie Elliott's Times article on Friday concluded:
"Poultry farmers are incensed by what they perceive as lax biosecurity at the farm which allowed turkeys, geese and ducks to mingle with wild birds near an ornamental lake. Many are now demanding new rules for free-range and organic birds and for the Government to regulate rather than offer guidance ...."
Such "farmers" would indeed love to see yet more regulation tangling up the lives of those who produce free range hens and eggs. Such dastardly laxity, such "mingling" between the free and the enslaved must be outlawed for good.

Interesting that on the 13th November the 'spread by wild birds' theory was the first to be trotted out in relation to the finding of H5N1 at Redgrave Park farm in Suffolk. It was the same story at Bernard Matthews too in February. If it is said enough times, will people forget the self-evident fact that overcrowding breeds disease? Where a virus can mingle among so many it can mutate. On Friday night, at a public meeting in the Diss area, someone from Defra confirmed that tests on wild birds have shown no signs of bird flu at all. Suspicion that the virus was imported - as it was last time - is inescapable. It looks certain that, back in February, the Bernard Matthews factory imported the H5N1 virus as a result of the utterly mad to-ing and fro-ing of carcases and meat products between the UK and Hungary. Free-range poultry keepers were inconvenienced and worried for weeks as a result.

What was it that allowed the Holton factory not to be prosecuted? Dangerous practices were ignored. Why was the Bernard Matthews factory actually compensated by taxpayers to the tune of something like £600,000? Cui bono? One Holton statement said
"... we will not be complacent because bird flu did strike us. Together with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) we're working hard to learn all we can from this episode "
Unfortunately, in the area of animal disease, the UK's record on learning lessons is pitiful. The Bernard Matthews outbreak left many questions unanswered . Free range poultry owners are not going to be allowed to protect their birds with vaccines because of the old mantra, rolled out yet again a few days ago that " is possible that some vaccinated birds would still be capable of transmitting the disease if they became infected whilst not displaying symptoms...." Dr Ruth Watkins says this is not true if the whole flock is vaccinated. And who in their right mind would suggest vaccinating only a few?

"If 3 weeks has passed since commencing the vaccine course (2 doses) (or the time stated by the manufacturers for full immunity) then there will be a solid immunity in the flock. We are not talking about vaccinating an already infected flock."

Intensive factory farms seem set to go on transforming the miserably short, unnatural lives of farmed poultry into vacuum packed meat products for the supermarkets. That the cost of all this is much too high must surely now be self evident.

In East Anglia the high densities of poultry and of pigs is a disaster waiting to happen. It is regulation of the intensive exploitation of food animals that is needed - not only because industrial scale production is cruel but because it is dangerous. And we need a vaccination policy.

Monday, 12 November 2007

It is about Democracy, dammit

When faced for the second time round with a dreary old "lessons to be learned" government review, can one summon the will to live, let alone pick up a pen?

Last time, a ProMed Moderator remarked tactfully
" the Lessons to be Learned Inquiry, had obviously to manoeuvre within a politically challenged landscape..."
You bet it did; a desert landscape with anxious vultures.
For how long can an Inquiry Chairman, sitting on his branch and appointed as a safe pair of hands, listen to howls of grief and anger about his political masters? Not very long. A quick swoop and the flesh of criticism is reduced to dry bones and dust and quietly forgotten. The sloughing off of reproach reached giddy heights during an interview on the Today Programme, December 18 2001 when the Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK government,David King, blandly announced:
"What I was happy to achieve in the FMD outbreak was showing that science in real time could provide a sound basis for policy advice."
Instead of falling dead on the spot he then went on to tell Jim Naughtie that the portable on-site RT-PCR diagnostic kit offered to the UK by ARS Tetracore in the US -(used successfully in Uruguay in the very same year)
"is based on a very well known technique...that technique has now been proven not to be capable of being validated..."
Not "validated"? For six years these simple to handle portable machines have been used by the US military to save lives and to track and destroy pathogens.

It is very evident that DEFRA's ignorance of virology, of vaccination, of farming and of animals is part of the reason for their institutionalised secrecy: they do not wish to be challenged. As for the Chief Scientific Advisor whose fell hand can be seen behind this year's policy, he may well have expertise in surface chemistry but - as the NFU's Anthony Gibson has said - he has no understanding of what was suffered by farmers who were forced to watch the destruction of entire pedigree herds in their farmyards.
"To him it appears to be a dry statistical exercise, whereas to those involved it was flesh, blood, tears, sweat and heartbreak."
In 2002 the official inquiries, anxious not to whisper criticisms too loudly at those great ones who had made such an unholy, bloody, fiasco of things listed some gentle recommendations. They were the lessons to be learned.

DEFRA did not learn them.

So, yet again, here are the Lessons to be Learned about coping with a foot and mouth outbreak.

1. Don't let virus escape.
It really didn't have to. Animal Disease Research should have been properly funded and the concerns of its experts listened to.
Pirbright's Professor Martin Shirley told the Science and Technology Select Committee earlier this year.
".....flat funding during the past three years for the Reference Laboratories (ie a significant cut in real terms) has meant that key areas of work, including some critical state-of-the art diagnostics, has to be undertaken by PhD students at the very beginning of their research training.....Year on year, we are able to do less science or we are able to employ less people, and this is an area of work that spans from foot and mouth through to bluetongue other exotic pathogens which pose a threat to the UK. We are forced to look at this whole area of activity to see where we can juggle the research, so there is a risk.... "

2.Vaccines against FMD are excellent. For pity's sake, let us use them.
Vaccination must be more than "considered" - it must be used as quickly as possible.
As for those regulations that cause exporting farmers (the powerful ones) to raise such a howl of agony if vaccination is suggested, is evident that there are many in the EU hierarchy itself who are not in agreement with the three month/six month rule.
The Member States should challenge these daft regulations - particularly now that Bluetongue vaccination is being embraced by one and all. Regulations are not set in stone. In the 2003 Directive, even the EU Directive - in its very first paragraph - says:
".....the Community is also a Community of values, and its policies to combat animal diseases must not be based purely on commercial interests but must also take genuine account of ethical principles."

3. The new technologies of rapid on-site RT-PCR diagnosis must be embraced and used.
They have been used to track and eliminate pathogens by the military in the West for nearly a decade. They are now being routinely used on farms in the former Soviet Bloc. What - apart from commercial jealousy - is stopping their use here?

4. A truly independent Advisory Group needs enough clout to oversee and if necessary intervene

There needs to be true accountability

Parliamentary Questions are all very well. They do, if asked with skill, eventually tease out of the reluctant Ministry some degree of truth about the way things were done - but an institutionalised secrecy pervades DEFRA and it seems that many have just given up trying to demand answers.

Yet such damning questions as the number of healthy animals killed - and why - should indeed be examined beyond the closed walls of Westminster. There was so little need for the suffering that went on.
If Pirbright had the sort of State of the Art equipment as that used in the private sector proper testing could have been done before animals were summarily killed. The Emersons, who lost all their free range animals were blackmailed with the emotive suggestion that their one possibly suspect pig (it was not in fact infected) could become a "virus factory". They reluctantly agreed to slaughter. In fact, they had no choice. Had they resisted, the Animal Health Act would have made their refusal a criminal act. How ironic it is that had they been living in former Soviet Bloc countries such as Uzbechistan, a diagnostic machine the size of a toaster could have discovered within 20 minutes if that pig was really infected or not. As it was, they lost their pets, their breeding cows who all had names, their pigs and sheep. All destroyed - and for no reason. It is criminal waste and cruelty.

5. Hindsight should have given us foresight

Eminent people spent a great deal of time and effort in preparing reports and making recommendations after the 2001 misery. In 2007 it was clear that we FAILED to follow the following:

1. Vaccination must form part of future control of a disease outbreak (Anderson)
2. Create a new national volunteer reserve to help in a disease outbreak(Anderson)
3. Devise new role for veterinary "paramedics" to assist vets in outbreaks(Anderson)
4. New training for farmers and vets in spotting rare diseases and bio-security(Anderson and Royal Society of London)
5. New guidance and instructions on slaughter of animals(Anderson)
6. A "senatorial" group to be set up to provide independent advice to the Prime Minister and Cabinet during a crisis.(Anderson)
7. Accountants and procurement experts to be recruited to work in emergency control centres during a crisis. (Anderson)
8. Emergency vaccination to be used as "a major tool of first resort" to prevent a foot and mouth outbreak becoming an epidemic (Royal Society)
9. The aim is to "vaccinate to live" and for animals to enter the food chain in the normal way. (Royal Society)
10. Tests to distinguish between an infected and vaccinated animals "a priority" ( i.e. for individual animals as well as the already validated herd based tests).
11. A new campaign to win over consumers to safe eating of foot and mouth vaccinated meat and milk. (Royal Society)
12. More research for a foot and mouth vaccine which could possibly be used routinely (ie not just for emergency vaccination) within 15 years - this would require international agreement. (Royal Society)
13. A new early warning system to alert the country to potential threat from new exotic diseases. One option is for a New National Centre for Animal Disease Research and Surveillance. (Royal Society)
14. A new national database of every owner of farm animals including pets, zoos, rare breed collections and animal sanctuaries. (Royal Society)
15. An extra £250 million funding for research and development, particularly to find a new diagnostic test to quickly identify diseased farms. (Royal Society)
16. Encourage new vets to join the state veterinary service(Royal Society)
17. The setting up of an independent standing committee to monitor the maintenance of effective planning (Royal Society of Scotland)

So if we do not pick up our pens and write to the Anderson Review, what then? Politics has been allowed to play hell with the lives of those it should protect. Knowing this, we are as much to blame if we do nothing.

It is inconvenient and a real pain - but Edmund Burke was right: All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. The email address for the Anderson Review is

Saturday, 10 November 2007


And so we wave farewell to Dr Debby Reynolds. We wish her well. We wish her a better future. We wish ourselves a better future. But those choosing Chief Veterinary Officers seem to be searching for special skills. The last thing wanted in a CVO, it seems, is the dangerous ability to empathise with animals and people. Such a weakness could jeopardise the "disease control strategy" which, according to the departing Debby, "is the best in the world".
(These really were the valedictory words of the CVO. An inability to engage with reality would appear to be another characteristic much prized.)

In 2001, the late, great Professor Fred Brown O.B.E was scathing of another CVO, Jim Scudamore. He said of the poor man that he would be better off doing a different job; "gardening, for example". Fred was one of the best British scientists ever - a brilliant and kindly searcher and researcher of the old school where what mattered was the truth. One of my best memories of him was while we were going through the obstacle course of security at (the so well named) Portcullis House. We were on our way to talk to David Curry, the Chair of the EFRA committee. While we waited, Professor Brown was telling me how Pirbright had been 'world class' precisely because it had been, in its heyday, a public service laboratory. It existed in order to serve the public through science.
And that pretty well summed up Fred Brown too.

There wasn't much he didn't know about Foot and Mouth, but as he wryly remarked,
"scientists know more and more about less and less while politicians know less and less about bugger all."
The EFRA Committee is that All-Party Select Committee whose job includes overseeing DEFRA. Our hopeful little band thought that if the Chairman heard Fred talking with such competent enthusiasm about the elegant new ARS Tetracore FMD PCR device he could hardly fail to use his influence to get the tests trialled and then adopted for use in the UK. Unfortunately, this did not happen.

That 2001 test could, (as the 2007 machines can do even better and more cheaply,) check whether animals were infected with foot and mouth before clinical signs were apparent. There was no fear of cross contamination because of the self sealing cartridge. Proper RT-PCR testing could be done on the farms themselves and give reliable results within the hour.

Had the EFRA Committee put all its clout behind on-site PCR, virtually none of the bloody and senseless killing that was going on then and has been going on since need have taken place.

Early in the 2001 crisis a question had been put to Sir David King, one of the chief architects of the UK's kill them first, ask afterwards policy:
If this machine is as accurate as Professor Brown told me, he said it is 99 per cent accurate, could it not have saved this huge, vast, expensive cull of mainly healthy animals?
It was the best question of 2001 - but it got the wrong answer.

King's waffling reply can be read here. He failed to understand the complexities of what the US were offering for trial but implied that he, David King, naturally, knew all about these machines. He defined the term "PCR" for the benefit of the assembled company. He implied that Pirbright (and himself) knew best. The suggestion that the ARS Tetracore kit worked better than anything the UK could produce for itself was, he implied, nonsense. And cross contamination most certainly would be a problem.

And after the carnage, Sir David King's contempt continued unabated. The following December, after literally millions of healthy animals had been slaughtered in very nasty circumstances indeed, Britain's Chief Scientific Advisor congratulated himself on a job well done and told the Today Programme "we did attempt to validate Fred Brown's test"

No. Professor King is mistaken. What appeared in the Veterinary Record on 6 October 2001 (and it is interesting that it no longer seems to appear in the Vet Rec archive): as "Evaluation of a portable, 'real-time' PCR machine for FMD diagnosis", by Alex Donaldson and his team, was a fiasco because it tested the body of the machine but with the wrong reagents. Which is rather like testing a motor bike after filling its tank with lemonade. "The reagents used in the assay were recommended by the manufacturer of the instrument" claimed the authors - but they were not recommended by the manufacturer, only by a rival company who didn't know what reagents were needed any more than Pirbright did and were only guessing. The paper said that the machine gave "poor results" and that, as far as David King was concerned, was that.

Had it been properly trialled with the correct reagents - in other words, had the US offer been courteously accepted - the story of FMD in 2001 would be very different.

And in 2007, had such machines been used, with or without vaccination, the grief of these past endless weeks could have been spared too. But, because of the intransigence of David King, Debby Reynolds and the yes men of DEFRA and elsewhere, we had neither.

In anywhere other than DEFRAworld, that virus escape from Pirbright would have heralded a real time exercise in vaccination of such importance that farmers and countrymen would have been united in their gratitude. The wretched virus would have been stopped efficiently in its tracks and, to make assurance doubly sure, portable RT-PCR diagnostic machines, operated by anyone after the most cursory training, would have been able to check the oral and nasal swabs of any nearby herds with very little need for blood to be taken. The whole thing would have been over within days.

Why do we go on banging on about all this? Why can we not just let it go?
There are two reasons. The first is that DEFRA still seems unaware of the importance of this technology - in spite of the UK's contribution to the development of new versions such as the Enigma machine at Porton and the Smiths Detection machine These machine must by now be nearly ready for commercial buyers. Some would say it is precisely for this reason that DEFRA has been waiting; so that the profits will come to the UK. Little hope. Small, efficient, cheap machines from elsewhere are on the way and they will be unstoppable. But it is heartbreaking to know that in the former Soviet Bloc countries, machines as small as toasters are already being used routinely on farms to detect and track pathogens with RT-PCR. In those countries viruses such as FMD and Bluetongue can be detected and stopped before they spread and cause the sort of damage that they wreak in Europe.

The second reason is that in a decent society we should expect accountability in our leaders. Animal Health policy in the UK has very little to do with health and even less to do with concern for animals. It is all about maintaining control. Those who have dragged farmers and animals into an unnecessary nightmare have never been accountable, they have never been sacked, they have never even apologised. On the contrary, most of them have been promoted and covered in honours or at least, as DEFRA might put it, " with plaudits".

It is time they were shown the door, leaving animal health to those who would care about animals and about their health. The blessings of modern veterinary science, the boon of technology and vets worth the name should be in charge.

And all the rest should go on gardening leave.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

No one will enter my farm to kill my animals...

Brave, admirable, doomed words.
"If the veterinary service does not show me in writing whose animals actually have this disease, no one will enter my farm to kill my animals,”
Farmers in Cyprus are tearful, angry and disbelieving of the nightmare into which they have been plunged. Brussels is telling them to kill their animals - they want to know which ones for why should they kill healthy animals? Brussels is telling them to comply with the rules - they want to know why they should. Brussels thinks that compensation will silence the outrage - but one farmer,fighting back tears during the House Agriculture Committee hearing on Monday, said his livestock were like his children:
"They offered me £150 for every adult sheep… and £20 for every lamb [to be culled]. I said to them, ‘I wouldn’t even accept £1,150.
Then we sat down and looked at another price estimate. I told them to get up and leave and not to come back. The next day they returned, and this time they didn’t even bother to talk to me or ask me to sign anything. They just went ahead and executed the animals.."
The Cyprus Mail reports that the head of the Veterinary Services, Charalambos Kakoyiannis, appears to be as appalled as the farmers.
"For better or worse, we are in the EU now. I sympathise with your cries of distress and I know you feel as if their animals are like members of your families".

"For better - for worse"? Trusting Cyprus entered willingly into that marriage of 2004. But after all the optimism of the wedding the EU mask drops to reveal something rather worse than a skull. The farmers have no power to resist. Blood-letting and grief has been forced upon them this week by political expediency, not by foot and mouth disease. Now that modern science has provided us with potent inactivated vaccines; now that technical ingenuity has given us the ability - on-site -to diagnose active virus within minutes rather than hours, there is no excuse for the kill first, ask afterwards policy. For what happened in the killing fields of Surrey there was no veterinary or scientific basis; there is none for what is happening under the autumn sun of Cyprus. Anyone who pretends otherwise is a charlatan. All that is lacking is political will.

Emergency vaccination has been used successfully right across the globe in recent years. It works. There has never been a single reported case in the field of an FMD vaccinated animal spreading disease. And the irony is that emergency vaccination is actually permitted by Brussels. But Brussels rules are in place to protect that talisman of protectionism, the status of being "FMD free without vaccination" - so governments will "consider" it and do nothing.

Fotis Fotiou, the Cypriot Agriculture Minister told the farmers that
"any notion that Brussels deliberately wanted to destroy the Cypriot livestock industry was fantastical."
Difficult to think of a more effective way had it been so.
Farmers in the UK are now looking at the destruction of their industry - not because of animal disease but because of the supposed cure for it:Zones and restrictions imposed on us by the EU and by a Ministry that will go to all lengths to enforce rules that are mad, bad, cruel, ignorant and senseless.

The battle for a humane animal health policy goes way beyond a fuzzy concern for animal welfare. It is a battle about personal control and responsibility being wrested away from us. The justification for the removal of our freedoms is - as always - that it is for our ultimate good. It is the ultimate cynicism of those high on the drug of power. This is a battle worth fighting.

Yet it is almost too painful. To report on the calamity unfolding in Cyprus and reading the words of the farmers bring back with such grim clarity the sense of desperation and trauma that the killing policy has brought to us in the past decade. It is a recurring nightmare. We feel physically sick. We want to turn away. We want to drown it out, forget it and stop all this. And that is precisely why we must go on.

(Painting by FMD Vaccination campaigner, John English - now sadly no longer with us. He was always much admired in the Forest of Dean for his love of pigs and cattle and his ability to catch a moment. The painting is a legend. It was with great sadness we heard of his recent and sudden death.)

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

"It seems that we are obliged to kill ..."

Poor Cyprus. It has only been a member of the EU since 2004. They are now suffering their first foot and mouth outbreak since 1964 and many there must be aghast to see how membership of the EU brings with it all the miseries that farmers in the UK have suffered - stringent movement restrictions , surveillance, "biosecurity measures" and, worst of all, the forced killing of their farm animals. Hardly surprising that a crowd of angry farmers on Sunday blocked entry to the two farms where officials wanted to kill the animals. It was useless. The cull went ahead yesterday.

The Cypriot Agriculture Minister, Fotis Fotiou, showed in a radio statement his shock at the measures insisted upon by the EU:
"It seems that we are obliged to kill livestock from the three remaining farms as well, which represents around 1,500 animals. Nobody can rule out the culling of many more animals if other test results come back from London indicating the disease has spread."
After the false reassurances of an earlier all-clear at the end of October, the UK has now declared that the latest samples are positive for serotype O of the virus - and all the miserable clanking machinery of the EU has moved into place; the Union has banned all exports of fresh meat, live animals and milk products from the country; the Cypriot authorities have already killed all the sheep in the affected flocks; a 3km protection zone and 10km surveillance zone have been set up around the holding - and thousands more animals are in the firing line, just as in the UK in 2001 and in this miserable year.

The President of Cyprus, Tassos Papadopoulos, has told islanders (see report) that
"this is a sacrifice that must be made if the broader dangers for the stockbreeding industry of the island are to be tackled."
A sacrifice? But this too was the hollow consolation felt by the farmers in Surrey,who thought that their reluctant countenancing of the killing of their own animals would save other farmers from the same misery. The Emersons, when their animals - pigs, sheep and, worst of all, the breeding cows, all named, that they cared for so much - were all killed "on suspicion", consoled themselves that theirs would be the last farm. But at least 33 holdings in Surrey (not merely the 8 "infected premises" as officialdom would have people believe) suffered the same fate. Without even having on-farm tests to prove the presence of disease, all the Emerson's free range animals - even the two pet goats - were killed. It took hours to kill the pigs and the cows. It continued well into the night under arc lamps. Not one of the animals was subsequently found to have been infected with Foot and Mouth.
I challenge anyone to listen to the BBC's On Your Farm and fail to be moved by the courage, dignity and unsentimental sadness of this couple.

The right and honourable method of dealing with this disease is to use the blessing of modern virology: vaccination. But, for reasons one can only guess at, the UK would not use the on-site tests that could have saved the animals on all those premises that were summarily condemned by being designated "dangerous contacts" and "slaughtered on suspicion". It is despicable. The Emersons are too much affected by the death of the animals they had cared for to continue to keep breeding cows. And in spite of her stoicism, going into their eerily deserted pig barn with the interviewer proved too much for Mrs Emerson. The UK policy depends on the kindly decency of such farmers - and it lets them down.

And now we see the same misery descending on Cyprus.

What heartbreaking nonsense this all is. Foot and Mouth is not a terrifying killer. It is a disease where symptoms can be of varying degrees of severity. In Surrey they were so mild that many animals had recovered before being detected as having had the disease - but that recovery did not prevent the authorities from killing not only those animals but literally hundreds of others nearby. Yet in the EU and also in the US the downright lie persists that there are no vaccines that can provide an alternative to such indiscriminate killing.

Modern potent vaccines can be used to protect a nation's livestock. Instead, by making vaccination the poor relation in disease control, the EU continues to treat FMD as if it were an invincible terror necessitating the most draconian measures. While officials "stamp out" the disease they also stamp on the feelings and rights of the farmers and kick asunder all the ethics of humane, science- based veterinary care.

When the desperate idiocy of all this is finally put right and people look back on it all they will hardly be able to believe that we were capable of such callousness. As Alan Bennett says of the 2001 mass culling (Untold Stories p293):
"In fifty years' time I am sure that we will not handle animals the way we do now and to succeeding generations our behaviour will seem as barbarous as bear baiting...."

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Scotland the brave

The virus-carrying midges of Northern Europe, deterred and terrified by brave words from the Scots farming union bosses, are going to make a U turn at Hadrian's Wall.
Scotland is a country where midges are virtually unknown.

None of this is true, alas, but to hear a spokesman for the Scottish Beef Cattle Association, evidently appalled that his English counterpart advocates a survival package that would bring Scotland into the Surveillance zone, you would think that it was. He says,
"The SBCA could not be party to a policy which could expose the Scottish livestock industry to this most dreadful disease."
The National Beef Association, the British Pedigree Beef Society's Group, the Livestock Auctioneers Association, and British Camelids are trying to do something to defend their members and protect the animals. They have all asked the Chief Vets of England, Scotland and Wales - in a bid to rescue their members from the consequences of the DEFRA restrictions -
  • to extend the protection zone to cover the whole of Great Britain - or at least
  • to allow the movement of pre-tested pedigree stock from a protection zone to a free zone,
  • and to make sure that the use of an inactivated BTV vaccine does not result in trade barriers being erected against vaccinated stock.
(Actually this is likely to happen the other way round, Vaccinated stock will be at a premium. In Spain a vaccinated calf makes on average 100 EUROS more on the market than an unvaccinated calf.)

NBA director, Kim Haywood says of the four organisations:
"They want to see a compulsory vaccination programme for GB and full government backing for a European Community vaccination policy that covers all Member States."
A compulsory scheme would, of course, be ideal. All the same, even - best case scenario - with Intervet and Merial pulling out all the stops following firm committed orders, no one knows how far vaccine supplies are going to be able to stretch and it is still of vital importance that all the affected governments work together to ensure that vaccine policies are in line with EU requirements. We want to make sure that the pot of funding available from EU taxpayers can be shared by all who need it. Scotland is not included in DEFRA's tendering for vaccine supplies (nor is Wales) and one hopes that they will not assume invulnerability to the point that they fail to make quick and urgent orders for vaccine.

Dan Buglass in today's Scotsman writes,

"Scotland is perceived to be less at risk because of its cooler climate and more northerly latitude..."

"Perceived to be at less risk by whom?" one wonders wearily. Do they really not remember that the rest of the UK was saying that a little while ago too. Indeed, Debby Reynolds said much the same thing on the Today Programme on the 19 Aug 2006. When the Dutch authorities had identified the presence of the blue tongue virus in the Netherlands, our CVO said that although it was "a significant development" the risk to British sheep was "low overall".

For Scotland to stand similarly aloof, assuming that this is a disease that can only affect them if infected animals come into Scotland from elsewhere, is bravado on a par with that of King Canute.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Their brains are in their pockets

With the news that England (alone) is at least "tendering" for Bluetongue vaccine, we can see that the stable door is at least being approached. But those who would lock it are doing so in blindfolds and the horse is a speck on the horizon.

As always, the notion of actually using vaccination - the one method that works - seems to be simply too much for DEFRA to cope with. It has not ordered any vaccine. It has put out tentative feelers to both Merial and Intervet to ask how much money they want for their vaccines. How can the vaccine companies possibly give an answer if they don't know how much is going to be ordered across the EU? And how - we ask it through a megaphone - can DEFRA continue to keep Merial from its vital work at Pirbright when DEFRA's own appointed expert,Professor Spratt, says it has always been perfectly safe to work with Bluetongue virus there? Is Merial having to send its vital supplies away to France? This seems utterly absurd when every minute counts.

Inter-governmental sharing of information is not happening. DEFRA clearly does not know what other governments are doing in the matter of vaccine. Not surprising then that the Opposition is talking about Britain being "at the end of the queue"

But what queue? Why a queue? There is a lot of money available from the EU to cover costs. It is there to be applied for. Why all this talk of farmers paying? All governments affected by Bluetongue ought to be conferring and acting together - they ought to have done it months and months ago - to ensure that the vaccine companies were primed and ready to supply as much vaccine as needed for all. Without vaccine - for once all agree with this - there really is no hope of getting rid of the BTv-8 strain of virus.

"With every passing day, this map looks more like the opening credits of Dad’s Army..." said the NFUS. Even now, as the midges become more and more infected, European cooperation would help, would it not? Are governments talking to each other or not? It would seem not - since they are not acting in unison. comments today:

"It would appear that the EC, who controls the use of vaccines throughout the EU, has been wasting endless time arguing about trade matters, rather than trying to get to grips with the disease itself. Why were our UK representatives at Brussels not insisting on a logical vaccination programme that could be delivered at a time when it would be most effective?"
It will have occurred to many others apart from ourselves and Land Care to wonder what the European Union is for if not to help Member States act in unison at such a time of crisis. The EU Commission had promised to pay 100% costs of vaccine and half the administration costs if a proper and coherent plan could be demonstrated. But practical help and expert advice cannot be expected from them. Member States are on their own. The onus therefore is on Member States to apply for this compensation and to comply with all that the EU demands.

Supporters of the EU claim that all this centralisation exists to facilitate issues of common advantage. The EU involves itself in everything from foreign policy to immigration. It has created a mountain of laws and a monstrosity of regulation. Why - with its huge budgets and expertise - can't it help its apparently hapless member states to formulate a policy - to get them talking and sharing information? What on earth is it really for?

Government spokesmen will sniffily assert that they are always acting in partnership "with industry". The truth is though that DEFRA tends to keep all its little consultation groups separate. Neither effective communication nor true consultation can really be said to be happening. DEFRA, like the EU itself, is now asking its "core stakeholders" to sort out its own response to Bluetongue.
It was Ruth Watkins who, as a working farmer herself but also a virologist, concerned at the piecemeal nature of the vaccination policy that seems to be envisaged, said this morning:
"...People will move unvaccinated (and possibly unknown to them infectious) animals out of the zone if they possibly can, illegally or legal movements or bust.. I shall be sorry if the unions let this happen. They are not guardians of the livestock industry but defenders of the interests of a few rich farmers.
Their brains are in their pockets..."
The vast majority of farmers are given no say at all over their own livelihoods. Real understanding of the disease and what should be being done seems as elusive as ever. Responsibility has been dumped onto farmers who are as in the dark as anyone else and now depending on the "core stakeholders" to know best. And it is the farmers, it seems, who must - in all senses of the word - pay the price.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

"Culling" is far too cosy a word to describe what goes on.

It is a measure of how docile the public will be if glaring facts are kept quietly away from them with the collusion of the media. The whole country should be up in arms at the utter idiocy of the situation. But DEFRA continues to pursue its crazy path and its edicts are obeyed as if it were acting in the public interest.

It is Orwellian.

"Do not imagine, comrades, that leadership is a pleasure. On the contrary, it is a deep and heavy responsibility. No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?"

Well, if the decisions were made by the virologists, by the vets, by the farmers and by the decent people all over the country we would have a policy that protects instead of one that kills.
Animal Farm's Squealer can turn black into white, day into night, suffering farmers can be turned into hypocritical whingers, and a Department incompetent to the point of gibbering lunacy can somehow still be taken seriously. And now farmers are to help pay for the policies that are forcing them out of business and causing them such grief. But they will be as helpless as ever. They will not share in the decision-making. That is for the "core stakeholders", some of whose trotters, one suspects, are cosy warm.

"We should use the word killing not the euphemism..." The farmer and vet Carl Boyde, in yesterday's BBC report from the killing fields of Surrey, said that "culling" is far too soft a word to describe what goes on.
It was one small step towards giving the public a glimpse of the the sheer misery of the situation in Surrey when DEFRA's FMD policy wrought its havoc.

Carl Boyde:
"We should be looking at the whole situation - vaccination - is that not a better way?"
As that kindly farmer/vet reminded us, in 1923, the 2nd Duke of Westminster had a herd of Dairy Shorthorns at his Eaton Hall estate in Cheshire. He sidestepped the draconian killing regulations, successfully nursed the herd back to health and several of the cured animals went on to win prizes at The Royal Show the following summer. But in the 1967 outbreak no such permission was received and the 300-strong Eaton herd of pedigree Dairy Shorthorns dating back to 1880 and containing champions, all were slaughtered.

This is the policy that against all scientific and ethical considerations persists to this day. Foot and Mouth is indeed a Manufactured Plague - as Abigail Woods so cogently explains in her book.

Arguments backed by knowledge of disease, understanding of modern vaccines, availability of state of the art on-farm diagnosis - in short, all pleas for sanity - fall on the defra ears and closed mind of the authorities.

The EU regulations are mad and bad. They are not founded on scientific knowledge. Their proclaimed precautionary principles are nonsense. Far from existing to protect the health and safety of animals and people, they protect the trading profits of the few. The victims are the rest of us - and the many decent farmers who care about their animals.

This BBC clip shows the continuing distress in Egham of the couple whose misery was recorded on on September 21st.
Carl Boyde is their local vet and what he says rings with the authentic tones of one who sees that the Emperor has no clothes:

" If we can buy and eat meat from countries which practise vaccination why on earth shouldn't we do it here with our own animals? It seems to me a great anomoly that even now in 2007 we still have the same mid-Victorian killing policy which has persisted in successive Ministries of Agriculture and persists in DEFRA to this day."
The BBC interviewer obediently trots out the mantra that Defra "have to abide by European law which states that to keep the highest level of international trading status we cannot routinely vaccinate" and the non-sequitor that vaccination "wouldn't protect against all the different strains of foot and mouth."

Give us strength, oh Lord. No one is arguing that it would. Vaccine protects against the strain for which it is designed - and in Surrey that strain was known (hardly surprising but accidents happen especially when government funding and regulatory care is so abysmal) There were, of course, supplies of the exact match vaccine to hand. Nor is anyone arguing at this stage for routine vaccination - although it will undoubtedly come one day.
The escape of virus is one thing. Turning that accident into a national disaster when the application of vaccination could have contained and eradicated the problem within days is utter, staggering insanity.
Until the public at large realise the miserable absurdity of our current policy and raise their voices against it, the big players of the meat industry, with the dead-eyed collusion of DEFRA and the EU protectionism, will continue to stamp out and stamp on people like the Hepplethwaites.

The horrors and terror and waste of 2001 cost the country £8 billion. The costs this time are still being calculated. Meanwhile, Rob Lawrence, the Hepplethwaites and all those others like them in Surrey, mourn the untimely deaths of their animals, the lonely fields, the changed landscape. They contemplate the future with bewilderment and grief. We contemplate it with anger and a determination that things can will and must change.