Global disease

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 March, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 March, 2001, 12:00am

Television images of burning animal carcasses show the extent of the foot-and-mouth emergency in British farming. The virtual shut-down of rural Europe illustrates the efforts to try to hold the disease at bay there.

Yet in the New Territories, and elsewhere in Asia, it is a different story. Foot-and-mouth disease hits pig farms every winter. It attacks cloven-hoofed animals in the same way as influenza affects the human population. Farmers isolate infected beasts and treat them with drugs. According to veterinary experts, the disease is impossible to eradicate here, and up to now no one has paid particular attention to it.

So far as is known, the infection does not transfer to humans or affect the food chain because the virus is killed by the heat of cooking. Many people have eaten pork from animals that have had the disease. Many more will do so in future. There are no SAR regulations banning meat sales from animals that have survived. Therefore outlawing untainted meat from countries that are battling the disease would seem to be a pointless exercise.

The mass slaughter of animals in Britain is an effort to reclaim the country's reputation as foot-and-mouth free, as are most Western countries. The reaction of local pig farmers gives a clue as to why this is so important. There is great alarm in the industry that other strains of the virus will be imported. But vaccines also treat European strains. If tainted meat products slipped past the inspection process and reached local pigs they could presumably be inoculated in the same way as New Territories animals - the only difference being the type of vaccine used.

In Britain, scientists blame the outbreak on meat imports from countries where foot-and-mouth is endemic. One of the hazards of world trade is that diseases are able to transfer between continents. Co-operation and an interchange of information, plus the highest agricultural hygiene standards are what farmers should call for. Banning imports without strong scientific evidence could be to risk a trade backlash. If the SAR was foot-and-mouth free, it might be justified. More stringent standards at home should be the demand from local consumers and the top priority.