Britain Still Slaughtering Cows

Alive Magazine
July 2001
David Crowe

The British countryside is wreathed in smoke from the pyres of animals condemned to burn because of Foot and Mouth Disease. Over two and a half million animals were slaughtered, burned and buried before the epidemic was declared to be over - just before the British election. Although it will cost British taxpayers at least CDN$1.4 billion in compensation to farmers for the FMD massacre, shockingly, many of these animals were perfectly health when killed, and even those that were ill would have recovered within two or three weeks. Almost 1,600 animals were killed for each of the 1,600 animals that had any FMD symptoms at all!

The slaughter of British farm animals was led by MAFF (Minister of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries) which admits that “the disease is rarely fatal, except in the case of very young animals” and that the disease “usually runs its course in 2 or 3 weeks after which the great majority of animals recover naturally”. The disease may cause animals to stop producing milk during this time, they may require extra care and their growth may be slowed, but these effects are only temporary. The meat from infected animals is still fit for human consumption, and the disease has no effect on humans. In the first 35 British cases in this outbreak, not a single death was caused, yet all 577 animals on the affected farms were slaughtered.

During a 1922-24 epidemic, the Duke of Westminster won an exemption from the slaughter policy for his herd. His workers applied locally known remedies, and paid extra attention to the animals. Recovery was so good that some of the animals that had the disease in the winter won prizes at the Royal Show the following summer. Other farmers had similar experiences when slaughter was delayed long enough that the animals had already recovered. Now, with MAFF enforcing a 24-hour slaughter policy, this absurdity will be masked.

The justification for the slaughter, not only for animals with clinical signs of the disease and those with antibodies to the virus, but also for those in the vicinity of affected farms is purely economic. If Britain does not take this drastic action, they will lose their ‘disease free’ status, significantly curtailing their ability to export meat products (which are believed to be infectious).

It is not clear how the slaughter policy can possibly be effective. The disease can exist in wild animals (such as hedgehogs) and in horses (without symptoms). It is believed that one outbreak of the disease reached England across the English Channel by air from Brittany in France. Even killing every cow, sheep and pig in England could not stop the disease from reoccurring. No matter the futility of the ‘burn first, ask questions later’ policy, the British started it in the 1950’s and, now that it has caught on in the rest of the world, they have little choice but to continue.

A vaccine would seem to be an easy way out. The reason that this is not the favoured course of action is again purely financial, and not due to questions about its efficacy. Since Foot and Mouth disease is usually detected via antibody tests, and vaccines will stimulate the production of antibodies, there is no way to tell whether an animal being exported is infected or vaccinated, and disease-free status may be lost anyway. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has attempted to refine antibody testing to make this distinction, so far unsuccessfully.

The use of antibody testing is very common in human and veterinary medicine, but it is obviously an unreliable indicator for disease. Antibodies are produced as part of the immune response to a virus, and can be generated in the absence of a successful infection, and will remain long after recovery. They may help to identify the cause of disease in a sick animal, but their use in healthy animals cannot tell whether they are about to get sick, were previously ill and have recovered (and are now immune) or developed immunity without ever being ill.

Many questions could be asked about antibody testing, but they are not, and little information is made available. MAFF has an extensive website on the disease, but not a single entry on antibodies, ELISA (the type of antibody test most commonly used) or testing in general. Steven Ransom, a British activist, attempted to get information on the tests and was told by John Anderson, Head of Diagnostics at MAFF’s Pirbright Labs (the FAO’s world reference laboratory for this virus) that the tests used were ‘in-house’ (i.e. not commercially available) and “of course they were accurate”.

The reliance on antibody tests opens the possibility that Foot and Mouth Disease is not even primarily viral. The association of antibodies with a disease does not prove that the antibodies are caused by a virus. And, even if they are, it is not proof that the virus is the cause of the symptoms. It could merely be an opportunistic infection, taking advantage of the weakness of the animal. Early in the 1900’s, Sir Albert Howard performed experiments in Puna, India during a foot and mouth outbreak designed to show that it was largely environmental. By providing extra care to his animals, better than average living conditions, and the highest quality feed, he was able to not only keep them from catching Foot and Mouth disease, but make them completely immune. Even allowing his cattle to rub noses with those with visible sores caused no disease.

The dominant view of infectious diseases is that the pathogen alone causes the disease, and that the pre-existing health or nutritional status of the animal has no impact, let alone improvements in diet or living conditions once illness has occurred. Consequently, whenever an outbreak of disease is believed to be infectious in nature, a militaristic attack is plotted, where killing the virus is far more important than saving its victim. The very need to continue to contain outbreaks more than 50 years after this policy was instituted for Foot and Mouth Disease should indicate that something is very wrong with this approach.

Further Reading:

  1. MAFF Website: www.maff.gove.uk/animalh/diseases/fmd
  2. FMD ELISA Antibody Test: www.iah.bbsrc.ac.uk/wrl_std/phase14.html
  3. UN Food and Agriculture Organization - www.fao.org

Copyright © David Crowe, Friday, May 14, 2004.