Illegally imported meat served in a Chinese restaurant is the source of the foot and mouth crisis currently ravaging the British countryside, according to a new report into the source of the disease. While the police are now investigating the possibility of a large meat smuggling operation, the government is anxious to control both the disease and the criticism of its handling of the situation.

The infected meat, which was probably imported from the Far East because of the strain of foot and mouth involved in this epidemic, was sent as waste meat from the unnamed restaurant in the North East. Then it was used as pigswill on Ronnie Waugh’s farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall, Northumberland, where the outbreak is believed to have begun. Police officials believe that illegal activity is likely, after some of the meat was found concealed in a load of household goods after foot and mouth was discovered.

Furthermore, the virus was not detected in sheep for up to three weeks until Waugh’s pigs were taken to be slaughtered at an Essex abattoir. This points to the likelihood that the disease was spread by sheep to several different areas. A government aide commented: “A sheep can easily cover 1,000 miles a week as it passes from trader to trader.”

Agriculture minister Nick Brown is expected to call for movement restrictions on sheep to equal those currently on pigs; in future, farmers must keep stock for 21-days for before they are moved.

Brown will also tell MPs today that the pigswill, which was boiled by an identified third party, should have been heated to 100°C in order to kill any bacteria and the virus. Only 1.5% of the nation’s pigs are fed with swill, which is licensed to only 100 farmers, and several MPs are now calling for a complete ban.

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Waugh insisted yesterday that he always used the proper heat treatment on swill before feeding his pigs: “I would boil it to the required temperature of 93.3°C and would continue to boil it at that temperature for four hours […] as recommended in guidelines.”

The official report into the source of the foot and mouth outbreak is published today, and is an important breakthrough for the government as it seeks to prove to the public that it is dealing with the virus effectively. News on the potential reasons behind the outbreak are likely to do little in the way of reassurance to the British farmers, however.

The mass cull policy of the government was enacted this week to the horror of spectators and those involved. The slaughter of 40,000 animals on Anglesey begins today in a bid to create a buffer zone that will contain the spread of the disease, and the army moved into Cumbria to help reduce the backlog of slaughtered animals awaiting burial, beginning with 7,500 sheep.

As the number of cases reaches a new high of 649 there have been renewed calls to Prime Minister Tony Blair to change policy introduce a vaccination scheme. Many believe that the slaughter and burn approach simply is not working, and Blair admitted on BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today programme that opinions were changing.

Once anathema to the government because of the impact on the country’s export status, Blair hinted at the possibility that the vaccine could finally be used: “As you track the disease and see how it spreads, things that may have seemed utterly unpalatable a short time ago, have to be on the agenda […] we are urgently looking at all those possible options for the future.”

By Clare Harman, editorial team