Britain is officially free of foot and mouth disease today - 11 months after the virus was first diagnosed in the countryside.

The county of Northumberland, where the outbreak originated, was the last to see the removal of the "at risk" status by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), after a large-scale surveillance operation which saw over three million sheep tested for the disease. Farmers are now free to resume domestic trade.

Northumberland was one of the worst affected areas of Britain, and witnessed a cull of 234,117 animals during the epidemic. Local trading standards authorities are prosecuting Bobby Waugh, the owner of the Heddon-on-Wall farm in Northumberland that has been traced as the start of the epidemic, over alleged breaches of animal welfare regulations. He will appear before Tynedale magistrates in Hexham in May, charged with failure to report foot-and-mouth, failure to dispose of animal carcasses, and cruelty to animals.

Defra's rural affairs minister Lord Whitty said: "For all counties in Britain to have achieved FMD-free status by mid-January is a credit to vets and officials, to farmers and the wider community."

He told the House of Lords that Northumberland's disease-free status is "a major step forward" but warned that it is "not the end of the story or the end of the risk of the disease".

Ben Gill, President of the National Farmers' Union, meanwhile welcomed the FMD-free status as a means to "remove a long, dark shadow from the countryside".
 
"This is the news that farmers across the UK have been waiting for," he added: "We all hope that this is truly the beginning of the end of this appalling chapter."

The British outbreak of the disease can now be seen to be the world's single worst foot-and-mouth epidemic, costing the economy up to an estimated £20bn. In total more than six million animals have been slaughtered and burnt on macabre funeral pyres around the countryside,  as 2,030 cases were diagnosed between February 2001 and the final case on 30 September last year.

The declaration that Northumberland is free of the disease brings Britain one step closer to having a clean bill of animal health in the eyes of the international community. It could still be some time however before the country is officially recognised as FMD-free in a global arena, however - a status that will see the removal of trade sanctions and restore previous levels of food exports. Britain now has two weeks to apply for fast track processing by the EC and the Paris-based Office International des Epizooties, said Bernard Vallat, the office's director-general, or the decision to restart trade could be delayed for several months.

just-food.com reported on 18 December that the epidemic could soon be officially at an end. To read this story, click here.