A Dirty Business : Introduction
In 2001, the UK experienced the worst outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in living memory. It was the latest in a long line of major disease outbreaks that had recently affected farmed animals, including salmonella, E coli, bovine TB, campylobacter, BSE and swine fever.
For eight months the epidemic raged across the country. Livestock movements and sales were stopped, and for a while markets closed their doors.
When they began reopening in February 2002, new biosecurity rules were in place aimed at ensuring no such disease catastrophe could occur again. (2) Everyone attending markets, whether auctioneer, market worker, dealer, lorry driver or farmer, was required to comply. Over-garments that could be easily cleansed and disinfected had to be worn; footwear needed to be suitable for disinfecting; this footwear had to be dipped in tubs of disinfectant when leaving animal areas; and the tyres, mudflaps and wheel arches of vehicles had to be disinfected prior to leaving the market itself.
In spring 2003, according to Farmers' Weekly, the government proposed tightening these biosecurity rules. It wanted compulsory attendance of vets at all sales and a ban on animals being kept overnight. But farming and market representatives rebelled. They were reported to be 'unanimously opposed to the government's plan', citing the extra expense and inconvenience such measures would involve (FW, May 23/June 13 2003).
When the new version of the biosecurity rules was introduced in August last year, it was clear that industry lobbyists had prevailed. Instead of being more robust, the new measures were more lax. They were also more ambiguous and, therefore, harder to enforce.
There is currently no clear ruling about compulsory attendance of vets, while the proposal to ban animals being kept overnight also seems to have been abandoned.
In addition, visitors and market workers are now no longer obliged to wear protective outer-garments, such as overalls. They simply have to ensure that their clothing can be easily cleansed and disinfected; or else - if their clothing does become soiled - that they have clean clothes to change into once they leave the animal area.
Handling of livestock is permitted, provided that the handling is kept to a minimum.
It was originally required that vehicles had to be cleansed and disinfected on market premises. Now, however, the vehicle operator can claim that on-site cleaning is not practical and he/she can select to sign a declaration saying cleaning will take place within 24 hours at a specified location. Enforcing such a rule is clearly extremely difficult, notwithstanding the fact that drivers are told that they are subject to spot checks. Our soundings suggest that this dilution of the vehicle-washing rule is causing alarm amongst experienced animal health officers.
There has also been a weakening of the 'standstill' rule relating to newly-purchased animals. The original decree demanded that 20 days had to lapse before animals bought at market could be sent to another sale or on to another farmer/dealer for further 'fattening'. This was to ensure that any disease they might be harbouring had a chance to show itself. But whereas a 20 day standstill continues to apply to pigs, for other farmed animals, the interval has been reduced to only six days.
As well as a weakening of the overall biosecurity regime, some of the new edicts are so ambiguously stated that they are open to lax interpretations. What clothes, for instance, are 'easily cleansed and disinfected'? How much animal handling can be said to be 'minimal'?
One clear, unambiguous rule that does remain relates to dipping of footwear: all attending markets must dip their feet in the disinfectant tubs provided before leaving the animal area.
The new licensing arrangement for markets presents further problems. Each sale must now operate under a licence issued by DEFRA. The licensee is responsible for ensuring that the new biosecurity rules are adhered to, including taking 'all reasonable steps to prevent the spread of disease onto, in and off of the premises during the animal gathering'.
The day-to-day application of this requirement is the central function of a biosecurity officer - who can be the licensee him/herself, or some other nominated individual. The problem with this arrangement - as anyone familiar with livestock markets will appreciate - is that the appointed individual will almost certainly be working during the sale (e.g. as auctioneer or in the ring) and will, therefore, be unable to monitor and enforce compliance with the new rules.
Click here for part 2 of the report, in which we describe the MarketWatchers' reports and the biosecurity issues raised.