Foot-and-mouth reaches Europe

by Tito Drago

Madrid, 13 Mar 2001 (IPS) -- Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) has spread to the European continent, triggering widespread alarm, as four cases of infected livestock were announced Tuesday in France - just three weeks after the outbreak of the highly-contagious animal ailment in Great Britain.

[Reacting to the spread of the FMD in Europe, from Britain to continental Europe, the US has announced a ban on imports of live animals and animal products from Europe. The European Commission in Brussels said that the US was ‘over-reacting’.

[Canada also has banned imports of animal farm products from Europe.  And, Within Europe, Belgium, Portugal and Spain are closing their borders to French meat, and so is Switzerland]

Though foot-and-mouth does not pose a danger to human health, except for a few benign effects, it spreads like wildfire among cloven-hoofed animals. The infected cattle, sheep or pigs rapidly lose weight - cows produce less milk - and the sores caused by the virus open the door to other infections.

The disease was confirmed on a farm in La Baroche, department of Mayenne in northeast France. The 100 cows on the dairy farm were slaughtered, as were 107 cattle on Monday in Normandy, due to indications that they were infected with foot-and-mouth.

While in Great Britain the authorities are discussing the slaughter of a half million sheep, the Agriculture and Livestock Ministry in Spain has banned movement of herds, with the exception of those that are transported directly to the slaughterhouses, and under the watch of health officials.

The sheep to be destroyed in Great Britain are pastured in wintering areas and were shortly to return to their home farms, located at higher altitudes, leaving the valleys to the cattle.  The fear of the British is that this coming and going of livestock would propagate the disease throughout the entire country. The animals do not need to share the pasture in order to transmit the virus because it can be carried in the wind and has a two-month incubation period.

The fear is such that disinfection measures have been implemented throughout Europe, affecting tourists and other travellers, who must now clean their shoes on special rugs or in troughs of disinfectant.

All vehicles and their cargo are subject to cleaning as well, when crossing most borders within Europe. Customs agents are confiscating food products carried by tourists.

The arrival of foot-and-mouth disease in Europe comes when the region’s livestock industry is still reeling from crisis caused by mad cow disease, or BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), the human variant of which is known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob syndrome, an incurable brain-wasting disease in both cattle and humans.

The disease even spread to a cheetah in a French zoo. The animal, born in 1992, the offspring of a cheetah in Great Britain and one from South Africa, was destroyed Monday after the first symptoms of BSE were detected.

The French Agency of Food Security reported that the cheetah’s diet had included beef and offal left over from the slaughterhouses.

So far, the measures enacted against BSE in Great Britain and in other countries, like Italy, Spain, Portugal and France, target animals that are infected, or are suspected of infection, which are then slaughtered and incinerated.

But additional long-term and more far-reaching measures are being suggested, such as a reform of the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

It involves the legal and financial system that regulates the health conditions of agricultural and livestock production in the 15 countries of the EU, including multi-million-dollar subsidies for farmers.

These subsidies absorb nearly half the total budget of the European Commission, the EU’s executive body.

Spain’s minister of Agriculture, Fishing and Food, Miguel Arias Canete, affirmed that the spread of diseases among livestock herds would mean new modes of production for Europe’s rural areas. Such changes, he said, require an overhaul of the CAP.

The CAP must also be reviewed as a result of the accords currently being debated at the World Trade Organisation, which imply an opening of Europe’s markets and cuts in farm subsidies.