With the number of confirmed cases of foot and mouth hitting 256 in the UK, ministers have taken dramatic action to halt the spread. Agriculture minister Nick Brown yesterday revealed plans to cull apparently healthy animals, with the first animals already being slaughtered this morning [Friday].

All sheep and pigs within a two-mile radius of infected farms in the north of England and parts of Scotland, that is to say the areas believed to be the hotbed of the disease, will be culled despite their apparent disease-free status.

The National Farmers’ Union has reluctantly welcomed the pre-emptive measures, but farmers are unlikely to be so accepting. According to the BBC, some farmers are considering attempting to prevent Ministry of Agriculture officials charged with slaughtering animals from accessing their livestock. While it is understandable that they might rail against the slaughter of perfectly healthy herds, they are expected to back down and support the government’s actions.

Brown’s statement left some farmers unclear whether their animals would be included in the mass cull or not. It is clear that the total cull will see more animals slaughtered than during the 1967 epidemic, when 430,000 animals were destroyed. It is likely that over a million animals will be slaughtered.

Around 90 countries have now imposed import bans on meat and dairy products from the EU, prompted largely by Tuesday’s news that the disease had spread to France.

Vaccination or slaughter?

The EU has indicated its approval of the culling strategy adopted by the UK government. While some parties are calling for a vaccination strategy, most authorities agree it would be ineffective. This is largely because vaccination takes ten to 14 days to take effect and is not 100% reliable. Moreover, tests for FMD cannot tell the difference between a vaccinated animal and an infected one. In the long run it is probably cheaper to slaughter animals suspected of having come into contact with FMD than to vaccinate them.

Portuguese authorities however, hugely concerned over the discovery of the disease in neighbouring France, have said they will “unequivocally vaccinate” if FMD gets out of control in France.

At the root of the UK government’s actions is a desire to protect the beef export industry. As a spokesman for MAFF told BBC online ,”The use of the vaccine would mean the loss of Britain’s disease-free status and this would cripple exports. The best course is to stamp out the disease quickly.”

Wise words – but as the disease continues to spread, countries around the world are losing faith in the UK’s ability to do this. The latest measures represent the most significant attempt yet to rein in FMD before the industry is crushed.