Very little is known about foot and mouth disease but as the outbreak in the UK takes hold, its effects may be devastating for the farming industry there – and have wider consequences for trade. Rajiv Desai, deputy editor of, presents a guide to the disease and its effects.

The surprise outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in the UK could not have come at a worse time for the UK livestock industry, which is still trying to recover from the BSE crisis. As FMD affects a range of livestock species, has a high rate of infectivity, and can be shed before clinical signs occur, FMD is one of the most feared diseases in agricultural circles. The potential effects of the disease could prove devastating for the UK’s beleaguered farmers.

Foot and mouth disease (FMD) is an acute, highly contagious picornavirus infection of cloven hooved animals. These include animals reared for food products like sheep, pigs, cattle, deer, and goat as well as animals like horses, rats and hedgehogs. The virus (FMDv) is sensitive to environmental influences, such as sunlight and dessication; however, it can survive for long periods of time at freezing temperatures.

An outbreak of FMD can cost millions of dollars in lost production, loss of export markets, and the destruction of animals during eradication of the disease. The EU has already placed a temporary restriction on exporting live animals, meat and dairy produce to other countries within the community. A ban that has now been extended until the end of March.The UK government has already banned exports of meats to other countries outside the EU.

The Food and Drink Federation estimates that FMD could cost its members more than £50m in lost meat and dairy exports before the ban is lifted. If, as expected, the ban stays in place it could cost the industry a great deal more. A prolonged crisis would be a catastrophe for milk producers, while supermarkets, butchers and processed food manufacturers will seek imported supplies of meat. Thousands of independent butchers, food factory workers and hauliers are in danger of losing their jobs as a knock-on effects of the disease. The costs may continue to rise once the disease is eradicated, as meat prices look set to remain high, encouraging retailers to look further afield. As the disease spreads and hits more farms, entire herds will be lost and farmers’ livelihoods will go up in smoke.

SOURCE: Guardian Media Group

Origin of foot and mouth outbreak at Burnside farm, Heddon-on-the-wall, Northumberland

First case of foot and mouth detected at Cheale Meats, Essex

Animals at nearby Prestwick Hall farm, Ponteland, are infected, probably as the virus is carried on the wind

40 sheep from Prestwick Hall are among 3,500 animals sold at Hexham.The buyer is Willy Cleave, a Devon farmer

The sheep are shipped to Longtown market, Carlisle, which acts as a holding centre

The sheep are taken to Mr Cleave’s Burton farm, Highampton in Devon

Sheep from Highampton are taken to Bromham slaughterhouse in Wiltshire where they develop foot and mouth.
Other sheep were sold to Hill farm in Llancloudy, Herefordshire, and another batch were sold at action in Northampton

348 sheep sent before the foot and mouth outbreak was identified were exported from Devon to Germany via Dover. Yesterday they were destroyed as a precautionary measure

The path of the infection

At present one hundred and four cases of FMD have been confirmed in the UK, with further cases likely to be identified. The graphic on the right shows the path of infection from the first eight cases identified. Ministry of Agricultural, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) investigators have said that cases have been found in parts of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The discovery of a case in Northern Ireland opens up the possibility that the disease will now spread to the Republic of Ireland.

MAFF confirmed that there is a link between all confirmed cases 

It has emerged that the foot and mouth outbreak originated at Burnside farm, Heddon-on-the-wall, Northumberland. Animals at nearby Prestwick Hall farm, Ponteland, were infected, probably as the virus was carried on the wind. Forty sheep from Prestwick Hall were among 3,500 animals sold at Hexham market.

The cases in Devon originated from sheep bought at Hexham by Willy Cleave, a Devon farmer. The sheep were then shipped to Longtown market, Carlisle, which acts as a holding centre. The sheep were taken to Mr Cleave’s Burdon farm, Highampton in Devon, infecting his herd of cattle. Sheep from Highampton were taken to Bromham slaughterhouse in Wiltshire where they developed foot and mouth. Mr Cleave sold sheep from his Devon farms to Hill farm in Llancloudy, Herefordshire, and another batch was sold at auction in Northampton market. All these events took place before effective measures to contain the disease were in place.

The problem for the government is that it has to trace all known movements of livestock out of affected farms, abattoirs and markets in order to contain the disease. Up to 25,000 animals are thought to have passed through Hexham, Carlisle and Northampton markets. New cases are emerging every day and may rise further. The most worrying aspect is the fallout of more cases being identified from the batch of sheep that have the disease at Northampton. Transportation of diseased herds over long distances may have also spread the infection further afield.

Fears that contaminated animals were exported to Europe

The UK government placed a seven-day ban on movement of farm animals across the UK in a bid to halt the spread of the disease, but the appearance of further cases prompted the government to extened that ban yesterday to16 March. There are also fears that FMD may have spread to mainland Europe after Germany last week reported suspect cases. Livestock was exported from the UK before a restriction on exports was put in place by MAFF. Tests on livestock suspected of carrying foot and mouth disease in France, Denmark and Belgium proved negative on Monday (5 March). The EU has adopted measures that ban cross-border movement of livestock as well as closing down European livestock markets. Most European countries continue to cull livestock it believes has come into contact with British animals. As yet there are no confirmed cases of the disease in Europe.

FMD is present in many countries of the world but experts believe that North and Central America, Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia and Western European countries are generally free from the disease. Strict agricultural and vetting procedures in most developed countries have ensured that the disease has not transgressed their borders, but nevertheless, outbreaks do occur. FMD was last reported in 1929 in the US, 1952 in Canada, and 1954 in Mexico, while the UK’s last outbreak of any scale was in 1967.

The disease is epidemic in Asia, the Middle East, the Indian sub-continent and in parts of central Africa and South America. UK government veterinary officials have already identified the current strain of the virus as Type O, a virulent pan-Asiatic strain that develops within 48 hours of infection. This strain has been identified in previous outbreaks in Japan, South Korea, South Africa and Russia.

This makes the outbreak of the disease in the UK all the more surprising. MAFF is unsure how the virus came into the country, but there is speculation that the disease could have come to the UK from illegal meat from another country or infected food products, which may then have got into the animal feed chain.

One theory is that pigs at Burnside Farm in Northumberland, where the first outbreak is thought to have originated, were infected by ingesting contaminated food. In this case infected food may have been processed into swill that pigs feed on. Pigs at Burnside were fed in this way. Investigators are also looking at the squalid conditions at the Northumberland farm to see if they in any way contributed to the disease.

Another theory is that someone or something may have brought FMD into the country through contaminated material. The disease is highly contagious and may spread over great distances through movement of infected or contaminated animals, products, vehicles and people. Clothing and utensils can also carry the infection. Farmers in the infected regions are to be asked whether they have been abroad and what they brought back with them in order to trace the source of the disease.

The FMD discovered at the Essex abattoir came from the Northumberland farm. The disease there is likely to have been spread by pigs, which excrete large amounts of virus by respiratory aerosols. As animals excrete a large amount of the virus before clinical signs are evident, this makes it easy for the disease to spread. Livestock can be infected purely by inhalation as the virus can pass through the air and has been known to travel over 150 miles. The spread of FMD cases amongst farms in Essex is likely to have originated in this way.

Timing crucial

The incubation period for FMD is 2-21 days (average 3-8) although the virus is shed before clinical signs develop. Scientists believe that FMD may have been in the country for one week at the minimum before being discovered at the Essex abattoir. The timing between entry of the virus and discovery is crucial, as FMD may have spread undetected to more farms than those already known.

Clinical signs of FMD in animals include salivation, depression, anorexia and lameness caused by the presence or painful vesicles (blisters) in the skin of the lips, tongue, gums, nostrils, coronary bands, interdigital spaces and teats. Fever and decreased milk production usually precede the appearance of vesicles. Lameness is the principal sign of the disease in all animals.

People can be infected with FMD but human infection is temporary and mild. FMD is not considered a public health problem and the ban on exports of meat in the UK is purely on the grounds of animal health. The Food Standards Agency in the UK has stressed that the outbreak has no implications for human health. Infection in human may be through skin wounds or by handling diseased stock, the virus in the laboratory, or by drinking infected milk, but not by eating meat from infected animals.

Treatment of the disease usually sees an animal recover but authorities will generally destroy affected herds of animals in order to contain an outbreak. The number of animals slaughtered or due for slaughter in this outbreak is already 89,000 with 102 farms around the country under restrictions. A strict quarantine around affected areas that restricts animal and human movement is usually put in place to restrict the spread of the disease.

The UK government has asked people to stay away from farmland to restrict the spread of the disease and have given local authorities power to close footpaths near farms. Dartmoor, in Devon, has been closed to the public, while Royal parks in south west London were closed yesterday to protect deer herds. Sporting events have also suffered with all horse racing suspended in the UK until 7 March. Preventive measures like disinfection of premises has already taken place in farms nearby known cases.

The FMD outbreak is expected to prompt a longer-term review of UK farming policy and how the movement of animals to the plate is coordinated. It is likely that scientists will investigate if modern intensive farming methods made farms more vulnerable to the animal’s diseases than before. The UK also suffered from an outbreak of classical swine fever last year. The UK government may now look at how animal welfare can be improved, while more stringent measures to check foreign meat and meat products imports is likely.

The crisis is likely to get worse before it gets better but until then the sight of burning animal carcasses may become a regular sight across the countryside.

By Rajiv Desai, Deputy Editor,

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