Postindustrial farm panic

Hoof-and-mouth disease: Britain reels from damage threatened to a tiny part of the economy.

March 05, 2001

FEW COUNTRIES are as little dependent on farming as Britain, or treasure it more.

Agriculture accounts for just 1.7 percent of gross domestic product. The green countryside is the national treasure.

Two livestock diseases within a few months have brought national trauma.

Because of hoof-and-mouth disease, not only was horse racing called off, most sports events also were. People were told to shun rural walks, farms or fishing. Farm animals marked for shipment were immobilized. Across the Irish Sea, the city of Dublin postponed its St. Patrick's Day Festival from March 17 to a later date.

Hoof-and-mouth is a common disease, endemic in the Third World. The last serious outbreak in Britain was 1967. It is a virus producing fever and sores on mouths and feet. Animals get scrawny and useless. Normally they don't die. Incidence in humans is extremely rare and not fatal. This is a disease that harms the economy, not human health.

The panic, which kept British meat out of Europe, followed close on BSE, or mad cow disease, which turned France into a nation of vegetarians. That is an ailment spread by feed with contaminated animal content given to grain-chewing animals. It produces madness and death, with a related disease doing the same to human diners.

BSE can show up in an animal a decade after it has eaten the wrong stuff. Hoof-and-mouth is a virus born on the air, easily spread. Hence the vigorous efforts to keep people away from it, lest they carry it home.

Draconian measures may have worked. On Friday, Britain's Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food eased the ban on animals from uninfected areas moving to slaughterhouses.

Authorities identified 36 cases of the disease in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, with 37,000 animals at infected sites, all derived from one farm in northern England. Tests were being conducted at 68 more sites.

Prime Minister Tony Blair was expected to call a national election the day of local voting, May 3. Don't count on it, if hoof-and-mouth has not been contained. He would not want to face an electorate banned from country walks.

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