For six weeks, our Global Update columnist John Gadd has been deeply immersed in the foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) crisis in his English homeland. Here is his first-hand report of the events that occurred and the lessons learned for other countries to use in defense against this devastating disease.

How did FMD start? It almost certainly started by illegally imported meat from an infected country used in restaurant and hotel leftovers, then insufficiently boiled and fed to pigs as “swill.”

These infected pigs then infected sheep in a local livestock market. When the infection was first confirmed, an export ban was immediately placed on all United Kingdom (U.K.) livestock.

This caused the sheep price to fall, and farmers either brought them home (now possibly infected), or sold them at a reduced price to dealers, who then re-sold them unwittingly over a wide area.

There was a fatal, two-day delay between the export ban and the total movement ban. But, by this time, the infection had “escaped” to many other areas.

The problem seems to have been that crucial delay to take vigorous, unpopular but vital action to contain the disease locally. America, you must learn from this. Have your action plan ready.

Lessons to Learn

In many people's opinion, the British authorities were not nearly vigorous enough in making it as difficult as possible for any meat from countries infected with FMD to enter the country in “smuggled” consignments. In other words, cheap meat was illegally traded to low-grade eateries, taking advantage of our favorable exchange rate.

Once a case of FMD is confirmed, authorities should take immediate action, backed by law, to impose a total movement ban. Bureaucracy has been FMD's best friend.

Three Proactive Steps

  1. Provide sufficient financial resources to ensure adequate facilities and personnel at all entry points to make it nearly impossible for imported, possibly infected meat to get through.

    This will include truck and container searching, prominent notices at airports (with fines if needed) to deter meat products entering in hand baggage, and worldwide notification of foreign travel agents that unaccompanied baggage will be “sniffed.” If food is detected, entry may be delayed until the bags are opened and the suspect contents examined.

  2. Ban all swill feeding (in the U.K.; 1.4% of pigs are fed this way).

  3. Tighten up public health inspection of the bottom end of the food and catering markets.

How Did It Spread So Quickly?

The symptoms are easy to spot in pigs, quite easy in cattle — but difficult and delayed in sheep until the infection is more obvious.

Understandably, with no major outbreak in 34 years, veterinarians and farmers were not looking for FMD, and it took time for the penny to drop. After the major outbreak in Great Britain in 1967, the report of a committee on the lessons learned seems to have been ignored, shelved and forgotten. Points not seemingly followed in 2001 were:

  • Once veterinarians have confirmed a case on a farm, they should be empowered to order immediate slaughter and burial (not burning), if possible, on the premises within 24 hours. They should not have to seek further authority. Speed is of the essence. Burning can take too long to assemble and carry out.

    Once an outbreak is detected, a veterinarian suspecting an infection could be given legal powers in advance to order the whole herd immediately slaughtered.

  • A computer program on the likely effect of an outbreak was purchased by the British authorities but was not even set up. This could have galvanized politicians to take more urgent action. The severity of the outbreak soon overwhelmed the resources applied.

Suggested Action

  1. Phase out local livestock markets, which have always been a dangerous disease vector. Instead, all livestock should move directly to slaughter or directly to another farm.

  2. Require any animal moved to remain on the farm of arrival for at least 20 days to allow any serious disease to appear (as with our U.K. pigs now).

  3. Apply the traceback system (e.g., animal passports or logbooks), already well developed in the U.K. for cattle and pigs, to all cloven-footed animals, especially sheep, if needs be on a batch/eartag basis.

  4. Supply all livestock farmers with a “diagnostic pack” of color photographs and a wall poster showing symptoms so they can quickly check suspects and alert authorities.

  5. Prepare safe burial areas in advance to safeguard underground water supplies. Other farms can then burn, which will not strain the considerable resources needed to do this quickly as happened in Great Britain.

Upgrade Biosecurity

Farmers worldwide need to upgrade biosecurity protocols for cleaning and disinfection. Also, at the start of the U.K. outbreak, TV pictures of disinfection of trucks and transporters at abattoirs (all markets were by then closed) showed pathetic hand-spraying directed at the outside of wheels only, with the insides, wheel splashguards and underside of the vehicle not even touched.

Also, disinfectant was being sprayed on muddy wheels, and entrance disinfectant pads didn't cover the circumference of the wheels.

National Campaigns

  1. National campaigns are needed to alert all farmers to modern methods of cleaning using only approved farm detergents and disinfectants at approved dilution and application rates based upon the degree and type of infection present.

  2. All abattoirs should have automated cleaning and disinfection tunnels (like a large car wash) with manual, supervised attention to the carrier decks. No driver should be allowed to collect another load without the supervisor's “certificate of disinfection” countersigned by the farmer before sale of his stock.

  3. Move toward farm boundary collection and delivery of input and output goods; limit farm entry by feed trucks, livestock transporters and their drivers.

Of course, all this costs money. The British authorities who could influence matters (Ministry of Agriculture and the State Veterinary Service) didn't demand sufficient financial resources, and the urban-oriented politicians weren't inclined to grant them. This holocaust will likely cost every man, woman and child in Britain about $241 in direct costs and lost business. That $241 would have paid for the strengthened defenses against FMD many times over.

America Beware

Strain every sinew to keep this profit-sapping virus out, and make sure your government spends the necessary dollars to do so. Many here are enraged that ours didn't.

And, heaven forbid, should it ever invade North America, jump on it quickly and incisively. Plan exactly what you need to do and have your solutions ready. Publicize locally and nationally — especially locally because that's where it will happen.

Current Situation (April)

Visitors to Great Britain won't catch the disease. Our food is quite safe to eat, and there are no shortages.

So when it is over, please come back to our lovely countryside. For now, visit our towns, stately homes, coastline, theme parks and villages and travel over tarmac (sealed) roads.

Fields, farms, forests, moorlands and mountains are largely closed until we get on top of it. If you keep away from infected areas, the chance of bringing it back home is extremely remote.