This week's outbreak of foot and mouth disease was uncovered by staff of the Meat Hygiene Service (MHS), an Executive Agency of the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

Every abattoir in Great Britain operates under the supervision of veterinarians and meat inspectors of the MHS, based in each plant. One of their key roles is to ensure that no unfit animal enters the abattoir. Before slaughter they check the animal's general welfare and cleanliness, and ensure that they are not obviously lame or suffering from any disease. If, upon inspection, a suspected notifiable disease is identified, the Divisional Veterinary Manager of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) is contacted and appropriate action is taken.

On Monday (19th February) Craig Kirby, the MHS's Official Veterinary Surgeon based at the Cheale Meats abattoir in Essex, uncovered the start of the current outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Craig explained:

"I was in the abattoir carrying out my normal duties. We had pigs and sows on site ready for slaughter. As is normal, the pigs were dealt with first, and gave me no cause for concern. The drover began moving the sows, and they became very noisy. I moved in to look at their condition. I quickly spotted that they were showing the signs of foot and mouth disease.

"Foot and mouth is not a disease I have ever seen before, but it is one of the key diseases we are trained to spot. The implications of missing an outbreak of foot and mouth at an early stage are enormous, given how far and how fast it travels. I have always hoped never to see it, for the sake of the livelihoods of farmers; others in the industry, and the well-being of the animals themselves."

Immediately following the discovery, Craig notified the MAFF Divisional Veterinary Manager and stopped all production operations on the site. His team of MHS inspectors was rapidly mobilised to prevent anything or anyone entering or leaving the abattoir. Security patrols were put in place.

Craig added: "Vets and meat inspectors perform a service that people do not see and are therefore unaware of. But we are conscious that the work we do is vital to maintain food hygiene standards and to protect consumers. Fortunately, in this case, there is no threat to food safety, as foot and mouth disease has no implications for the human food chain."

NOTES FOR EDITORS

 

  1. Since 1st April 2000, the Meat Hygiene Service has been an Executive Agency of the Food Standards Agency. Before that, it was an Executive Agency of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF). The MHS was originally established on 1st April 1995 when it took over meat inspection duties from some 300 local authorities. MHS staff (Official Veterinary Surgeons, Meat Hygiene Inspectors, and Meat Technicians) are at the forefront of protecting public health and animal welfare, and are an important link in the food safety chain.

  2. The MHS is responsible for enforcing meat hygiene regulations in licensed abattoirs and meat cutting plants, including ante-mortem and post-mortem veterinary inspection of live animals and carcasses. The MHS is also responsible in abattoirs for enforcing BSE controls - the regulations which require the removal of Specified Risk Material (SRM) most likely to carry BSE infectivity; and the Over Thirty Month Rule which prohibits entry into the human food chain of cattle over that age (with the exception of cattle which come under the Beef Assurance Scheme).

  3. Although the current outbreak of foot and mouth disease was first detected in a licensed abattoir, it is essentially an animal disease and has no implications for food safety. For this reason, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) is responsible for the management of the disease and relevant enforcement measures; animal movements; export controls; compensation for farmers, and the State Veterinary Service (which is investigating the origins of the disease). MAFF has a special Helpline for queries concerning foot and mouth disease - 0845-0504141. Information is also on the MAFF website, www.maff.gov.uk.

  4. For queries relating to the operational role of the MHS, please contact Finlay McNicol on 0161-952-4505. With the current restrictions on animal movements, and because of the possibility of foot and mouth disease being unwittingly transmitted, the Meat Hygiene Service is unable to facilitate media requests to photograph, or film at, licensed abattoirs. A photograph of Craig Kirby will soon be available from the Food Standards Agency's Press Office, on 020-7972-2373.