The UK House of Lords has defeated the government over the controversial Animal Health Bill, which seeks to give officials more power during a foot and mouth disease outbreak.

Peers voted by a majority of 171 to 123 to amend the Animal Health Bill to give priority to vaccination of animals rather than slaughter.

The amendment would mean that during a foot and mouth epidemic the priority would be to vaccinate healthy animals to prevent the spread of the disease, rather than previous policy to slaughter both healthy and infected animals.

The vaccination amendment was put forward by the Countess of Mar, who condemned the “bloodbath” of last year’s epidemic.

The National Farmers’ Union said vaccination was not necessarily always appropriate, but should be an option. An NFU spokeswoman was quoted as saying by BBC Online: “No outbreak is the same and we cannot afford to be rigidly scripted on what action might be required.”

Agriculture Minister Lord Whitty stressed that even with a vaccination programme, the disease cannot be wiped out without the destruction of diseased stock.

He also said that it could be as long as two years before the policy could be implemented.