A major vaccination programme to halt the foot and mouth epidemic looks imminent as the government meets farmers' leaders today (29 March) to discuss the logistics of the operation.

The EU has given permission for the UK to vaccinate 180,000 cattle in two of the worst hit foot and mouth areas; Cumbria and Devon.

Vaccination against foot and mouth may mean that the UK loses its 'disease-free' status on world markets, but the government is hopeful that it can begin exporting again three months after the last animal has been killed following vaccination.

NFU president Ben Gill said on Thursday that more animals were slaughtered than reported infected on Wednesday for the first time since the outbreak began. He said that this was a sign that the present policy on slaughtering animals was working.

The number of outbreaks in the UK stands at 740, while in the Netherlands; the total number of cases has now developed to 10. The Dutch fear that its firebreak policy (to vaccinate animals around infected farms) against the infection spreading has not been able to contain the disease.

The US has rejected a EU request to scale back a ban on the import of EU livestock and raw meat. Officials had hoped that the US would lift its ban against most of the 15-member bloc. But US agriculture secretary Ann Veneman said after talks with EU Food Safety Commissioner David Byrne that the European outbreak was "not under control yet".