Lord Haskins, chairman of Northern Foods, has warned that emergency milk rationing may be introduced in the next few months, unless the government acts now to vaccinate the nation’s dairy herds against foot and mouth disease. The current number of confirmed cases is approaching 800. Of the 55 million livestock in the UK 764,319 have been identified for slaughter and 481,909 have already been slaughtered.

Fresh supplies of milk cannot be imported into Britain, and yesterday the Labour peer spoke candidly: “The government should give serious consideration to vaccinating the entire dairy herd now. If the […] worst-case scenarios are correct, there will be rationing within two months.”
To date, over 100 of the nation’s 22,000 dairy herds have been earmarked for slaughter in a bid to control the rampaging virus, but many more dairy farms are situated near the worst affected areas; in Devon, Cumbria and the West Midlands.

Vaccination is rapidly appearing to be the only viable option, despite concerns that a mass vaccination programme could compromise the country’s live export trade in the longer term because of its tacit admission that foot and mouth is endemic. This week, the government won EU permission to embark on limited vaccination of 180,000 cattle to create a firewall around the diseased areas in Devon and Cumbria. 

Disturbing news also emerged yesterday that the supplies of the lethal drug used by vets in the mass cull are running out.

Vaccination will not however provide an easy solution. Haskins conceded: “this is nothing like as simple as people think. You would have to ban the sale of unpasteurised milk because that could spread the virus,” he explained. Vaccinated animals can still spread the virus, even if they are not affected by it.

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Spokespersons from the National Farmers Union have rejected the possibility of milk rations, pointing out that only 100m litres of milk, out of a total annual production of 14bn, have been lost because of the foot and mouth virus and the attempts to keep it under control.

The mere threat of milk shortages is handy ammunition for the opposition however, who are using the worst-case scenario of rationing as further illustration that the country is not ready for the General Election to go ahead on 3 May.

Meanwhile, farmers interviewed this morning on Radio 4 said they had no idea how a vaccination programme would affect them. “I have not been told whether dairies will buy vaccinated milk,” said one farmer. “I phoned my primary buyer yesterday but he was uncertain whether manufacturers would buy dairy products made with vaccinated milk.”