The UK’s major multiples have backed the government, in its bid to boost consumer confidence and push ahead with a policy to vaccinate some of the nation’s animals against foot and mouth disease.

Supermarket giant Tesco revealed it would put meat and milk from vaccinated animals on its shelves providing safety assurances had been made, and Sainsbury admitted that consumer concerns over foot and mouth took a back seat to those surrounding BSE. A spokesman revealed: “People seem to have accepted that foot and mouth is not a human health issue.”

The proposals to vaccinate those animals in high risk areas has met with “grave reservations” among members of the National Farmers Union, because it entails a clampdown on the export market for British meat for at least the next year, until the nation is deemed free of the highly contagious virus.

Similarly, the National Pig Association argues that the UK’s breeding pigs are highly renowned for their quality and are a “multi-million pound export earner.” If the vaccination is introduced, the association believes the industry would suffer irrevocable damage. 

If the slaughter policy is successful meanwhile, many believe that exports could be resumed within three months of the discovery of the last foot and mouth case.

The decision of whether to vaccinate is imperative however as tens of thousands of cattle in Cumbria, one of the worst affected areas, are due to be moved to pasture in the next fortnight, thereby doubling their risk of exposure to animals carrying the disease and their chances of being slaughtered.

David King, the government’s chief scientific adviser, commented that while the authorities still favoured the slaughter option, limited inoculation was being used to save still healthy animals: “What we are discussing here is a supplement to that to simply keep cattle alive in Cumbria.”

The Ministry of Agriculture, Farming and Fisheries meanwhile has denied critics’ accusations of dithering over how to deal with the crisis. A spokesman insisted: “There isn’t a problem. We have always said that vaccination is something we would use if it was going to be a beneficial course of action.”