The Foot-and-Mouth Epidemic of 2001.

Some thoughts on Judgement Day in Northumberland, 30th May 2002, and contributing factors.

Names of locations and persona have been altered.

(A) - A brief chronology of events and comments arising thereupon.

* 22nd December 2000 - Hotshill Farm, a pig-rearing establishment owned by a Mr. Raymond Eve, was visited by MAFF Inspectors and a Government Veterinary Officer following complaints from the RSPCA over animal welfare concerns. No evidence of disease was found, although misgivings were expressed about the condition of two pigs. According to one newspaper report, an argument had arisen over whether to prosecute Mr. Eve on this matter. (Who was responsible for instigating complaints to the RSPCA?)

* 24th January 2001 - MAFF and Trading Standards Officers visited the farm and noticed an improvement in conditions, the two pigs having been penned on their own. Yet DEFRA's report on the origins of FMD 2001 (May 2002) mentioned the possibility of Hotshill being infected on 26th January.

* 8th and 15th February - pigs sent from Hotshill Farm to Brent abbatoir, Essex. (In that case, FMD:O could not have entered the farm on 26th January, since symptoms would have been evident by the end of the month at the latest. Also, no other farms in the vicinity of Hotshill were affected at the time)

* 19th February - Brent abbatoir contacted Mr. Eve informing him that a notifiable disease was suspected. It was reported that the establishment had been closed due to suspected swine fever. Upon being informed of this by Andrew Wood of Brent abbatoir, Mr. Eve was not worried because there was "...nothing wrong with my pigs. If a pig was lying down, you would check it to see what was wrong. If it's sick, it will either come right or lie there till it dies. My pigs were up and eating. I know they were OK." (From The Guardian, 31st May 2002)

* 21st February - The disease was confirmed as FMD Pan Asiatic Type O.

* 22nd and 24th February - MAFF and Trading Standards Officials revisited Hotshill Farm and found that 90% of Mr. Eve's pigs had FMD:O symptoms, some lesions being approximately twelve days old. (In that case, disease onset at Hotshill was around 10th February, two days after the first transport of pigs in question. It could have been introduced on 8th February but the symptoms may not have been observable)

Unlike sheep, which can harbour the virus for several weeks before symptom manifestation, cattle and pigs succumb rapidly to FMD. If DEFRA's suggestion, that the disease may have been present at Hotshill Farm by as early as 26th January, was correct, then, given its infectivity rate, by 8th February, Mr. Eve's pigs would have been in too pitiful a condition to enter the food chain. To send sick and, possibly, dying livestock to a licensed abbatoir, expecting to evade the severest of repercussions, defies belief!

Therefore, in my view, FMD could not have infected Mr. Eve's premises during the last week of January 2001. If I am incorrect, the outbreak would have been declared by 12th/13th February at the latest - provided the staff of Brent abbatoir were complying with livestock disease monitoring statutes.

The possibility of FMD entering Hotshill Farm on or around 8th February and infecting some of the pigs despatched to Essex on that date needs consideration. Assuming the disease escaped detection prior to transportation, it is just feasible that the pigs were slaughtered before any symptoms showed. Given FMD's infectivity, this may have been responsible for the "Essex cluster" of outbreaks which occurred towards the end of the month. However, if correct, there was every likelyhood that FMD would have been reported by mid-February, resulting in the closure of Brent abbatoir.

Between 8th and 15th February, FMD symptoms would have become clearly evident at Hotshill Farm. Despite that probability, Mr. Eve sent another consignment of pigs to Brent abbatoir (15th Feb.), thereby running the risk of discovery and prosecution if he had known they were infected. Would he have taken that chance?

(B) Mr. Eve's Trial: Guilty by Proxy?

On Thursday 30th May 2002, former pig farmer Raymond Eve was found guilty at Hexham Crown Court of the following:-

(1) Failure in reporting Foot-and-Mouth Disease to the authorities - five charges. (2) Causing unnecessary suffering to the animals in his care - two charges. (3) Failure to dispose properly of animal by-products - three charges. (4) Feeding unprocessed waste to his animals - one charge.

He was cleared of:-

(1) Causing unnecessary suffering to his pigs - two counts. (2) Failure to dispose properly of animal by-products - three counts. (3) Bringing unprocessed waste onto his farm - one count.

The charge of failing to keep livestock movements records was dropped during the trial.

Throughout the hearing, Mr. Eve maintained his innocence, asserting that he was unaware of Foot-and-Mouth Disease being present on his farm. When examined on this point, he insisted that Ministry officials brought the infection onto his premises. According to one newspaper report, Mr. Eve claimed that his pigs were healthy until the inspection on 22nd February 2001, but two days later, their condition had deteriorated gravely.

"Scenes of horror at the farm of filth" (Northumberland Echo, 31st May 2002) was no exaggeration. The video taken by Trading Standards officers on 22nd February 2001 showing conditions at Hotshill Farm, Ryton-on-Tyne left very little to the imagination and shocked those present at Hexham Crown Court.

The judge remarked that although he accepted Mr. Eve's difficulty in spotting Foot-and-Mouth symptoms due to the farm's dirty state plus existing normal instances of lameness and lesions, the number of ailing pigs showing signs should have led him to suspect a vesicular disease.

I note two significant points. Firstly. Mr, Eve was cleared of bringing unprocessed waste onto his farm and, secondly, he was found guilty of feeding such matter to his pigs. At the trial, mention was made of cutlery and crockery items found in the pens, evidential that Mr. Eve had been feeding unprocessed waste to his animals. I have seen no accounts of how this came to Hotshill or whether he was caught in the act of feeding it to his livestock.

(C) Into the Long Dark Night for Mr. Eve.

Bearing in mind that, excepting an outbreak on the Isle of Wight in 1981, Britain had been FMD free since 1967, would Mr. Eve have known what the earliest signs looked like?

MAFF would have issued circulars to all livestock farmers informing them of FMD and what precautions to take. I believe a letter of this nature was sent to Mr. Eve in September 1998 in the wake of fears arising from a new strain of the virus affecting Asia and South-East Europe.

However, given the plethora of forms and other bureaucratic impedimenta arriving through farm letterboxes with regular monotony, FMD would not have been uppermost in his mind - until mid-February 2001 at the earliest.

Hotshill Farm was operated in a slovenly manner, with scant regard for animal welfare. Without wishing to denigrate Mr. Eve, I suspect he would not be elegible to join the ranks of Mensa. Newspaper reports describe him as being phlegmatic. Perhaps the word "simple" is more apt.

The image is forming in my mind of a man struggling to contain an unfolding disaster in the most disorganised of manners. Mr. Eve failed to realise that his pigs were succumbing to FMD until the symptoms were rampant. By then it was too late. Already under pressure from the authorities to improve animal welfare standards, he initially went into a state of denial and then, as each day passed with an ever-worsening situation, became overwhelmed with feelings of utter helplessness.

Bearing that in mind, it could explain why he allowed sick livestock to enter the food chain on the 8th and 15th February, knowing or suspecting they were developing a vesicular disease. There can be no other plausible reason unless Mr. Eve, surely aware of punitive repercussions, deliberately risked infection spread for financial gain - an unlikely scenario. As it transpired, the State Veterinary Service were able to trace FMD from Brent abbatoir, Essex, to its source, Hotshill Farm, within four days.

(D) Why no Shut-down?

The "scenes of horror at the farm of filth" which greeted the inspection team on 22nd February were a preordained inevitability: a far remove from the improved conditions noted on 24th January.

Yet why was this establishment not closed down following the MAFF visit on 22nd December 2000? Complaints about Hotshill Farm were not infrequent. Its disgusting condition and Mr. Eve's poor animal husbandry methods were well-known to the authorities. Alan Golding of the NFU said: "You have to ask the question 'why wasn't it shut down?' - they knew what conditions were like, they knew there was a risk of disease, and they knew it was a swill feeding unit where the risk of the disease spreading was at its greatest." (From The Guardian, 31st May 2002)

Paul Allinson, Tory MP for Haltwhistle and North Pennines, was amazed that no action was taken after both December's inspection and that of 24th January 2001, as well as complaints to the local authorities.

In his words: "The place was a complete mess and I think it's just amazing that MAFF and trading standards officers can go in there and say 'OK, in strict terms, the pigs are in good condition' - an expert who saw them said that on a scale of one to ten they were seven to eight - but they can walk away from it not knowing there must be a health risk to this whole hillbilly operation." (From The Guardian, 5th March 2001)

Mr. Allinson added that alarm bells should have sounded after Raymond Eve had been given an eviction notice from a farm at West Brough after failing to carry out improvements demanded by Tynedale Council back in 1992. Belatedly, bells did ring, but who activated them? And why?

On the surface, it would seem that Mr. Eve had been treated most leniently by the authorities. Again, to quote MP Paul Allinson: "I am amazed that, given the red tape and regulation which ties down farmers, no official action was taken against Hotshill Farm by MAFF or the county council. Hygene and cleanliness are very important in running a farm and it was obvious to neighbours and other people that Hotshill Farm was not a fit place. It defies belief that no-one in officialdom raised the alarm bells and took action."

A DEFRA spokesman commented in May 2002 that "We do normally visit farms by appointment with the farmer concerned because it would waste a lot of time and effort if we just turned up and there was no-one there or the farmer was not ready for an inspection. There is a limit to what you can hide on a farm in a hurry, especially in terms of animal welfare problems. Our vets are experienced and know what to look for. Hotshill Farm was visited in December and January but you have to remember that we can only prosecute farmers for doing something illegal, not for keeping their farms in a condition which people don't approve of. Had our inspectors seen any evidence of offences, they would have taken action." (From The Journal, 31st May 2002)

So, despite grave concerns from the RSPCA, Council Trading Standards Officers and neighbouring farmers, Hotshill remained open for business. Despite numerous complaints, plus doubts about Mr. Eve's suitability to work in the livestock sector, he was allowed to continue.

Mr. Eve remains adamant in his assertions that, firstly, there was nothing wrong with his pigs prior to 22nd February. The Trading Standards video shown at Hexham Crown Court told a different story. Secondly, it must have been MAFF officers who introduced the virus to Hotshill Farm on that day, adding that two days later, the pigs' condition was "desperate." In court, he did not mention having missed any disease signs but, instead, blamed the ministry for bringing FMD onto his premises. Yet FMD lesions up to twelve days old were found.

If Mr. Eve was correct, then two questions arise. Firstly, how did the disease arrive at Brent abbatoir, Essex? Secondly, if MAFF had brought FMD into Hotshill on 22nd February, would the symptoms have been "desperate" forty-eight hours later? According to Cumbria's Foot & Mouth Disease Inquiry Report (September 2002), pigs "... may show symptoms after an incubation period of only one to five days." Therefore, the slim possibility exists that he was being truthful.

Most disturbing of all was Mr. Eve's comment made during a newspaper interview published on 31st May 2002. He felt that even if his pigs had not been sent to Brent abbatoir, the epidemic would still have happened but blame befallen on somebody else - a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"From the start, they just tried to make it impossible for me. When I think back now, everything makes me think they just wanted a scapegoat. I think they wanted it to happen at Hotshill." (From The Guardian, 31st May 2002)

Was Mr. Eve indulging in mere blame avoidance, knowing yet refusing to accept his culpability, or was he being genuine in his suggestion of victimisation and hints of a "set-up?" Am I guilty of constructing realities from a paucity of reliable information?

The inescapable fact remained that Hotshill Farm was not closed down and no satisfactory reason given for why Mr. Eve was allowed to continue animal husbandry despite his poor record. Therefore, it is logical to ask why.

(E) Opportunity Knocks?

(I must emphasise that my purpose is not to prove the validity of any conspiracy theories but to raise concerns and ask questions which, hitherto, have not been expressed in a formal manner)

"FMD UK/2001 has coincided with a policy to down-grade the livestock industry and remove many small farms from the land. The UK Government plans a major reduction of circa 25% in the number of farms - mainly small farms - in the aftermath of FMD, with circa 50,000 people leaving the industry. Agriculture in (the) UK will be restructured and focused on large-scale farming industry. The policy is endorsed by the National Farmers' Union but is opposed by those with other interests such as animal welfare, environmental conservation and products which are safe, local and of high quality."

(From "Foot and Mouth Disease in the UK: Its cause, course, control and consequences" by Lawrence Alderson, Rare Breeds International, Shrewsbury. Published in July 2001)

I do not subscribe to the belief that New Labour had a monstrous plan involving deliberate introduction of a livestock virus as stage one in their countryside reform agenda. Paul Dukas' orchestral tone-poem, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," immediately springs to mind! It may never be established whether FMD was already lurking in the hills and dales of Northumberland due to errors in a (perfectly legitimate) vaccination experiment carried out under Official Secrets Act regulations. To me, this seems a far more plausible scenario.

In any event, it presented Westminster/Whitehall with a dilemma: allow the situation to continue until every livestock area in Britain was infected or act quickly by ensuring that FMD was brought out into the open and dealt with. To compound matters, MAFF's reputation had already been badly damaged by the BSE enquiry and, shortly afterwards, Classic Swine Fever. Their competency was being queried throughout the agricultural sector.

It would not have taken long to see enormous opportunities presented by FMD. Firstly, it would force rationalisation of the farming industry, thereby strengthening demands to reform the European Union Common Agricultural Policy. Secondly, grazing lands of animals due for extermination could be used in a variety of new schemes, examples being GM crops, wild-life protection areas, forestry and wind-turbine installations. The residue of Britain's livestock would be strictly regulated and eventually absorbed by the multi-national food processing corporations.

MAFF was on borrowed time, due for transmogrification into the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)

Lastly, The Countryside Alliance and affiliated organisations - Millbank's great enemy - would have its influence eroded beyond repair. There is no doubt, at least in my mind, that New Labour intended to neutralise what one of its spokespersons sneeringly referred to as "the rural nutters' cartel."

A note on Psychological Profiling. This technique was perfected by the British Security Coordination Unit (in conjunction with the USA's OSS - Office of Strategic Services) during World War Two, and involves scrupulous observation and assessment of the subject/target. As much information as possible is obtained on his/her appearance, behaviour, communications skills and social interaction, home/work background, plus interviewing family and associates. From the data gathered, deductions on how the person would react to future stimuli can be made with considerable accuracy.

Did Raymond Eve and his "farm of filth" provide MAFF's puppet-masters with an ideal alibi? Could he be manipulated into shouldering blame for initiating the dispersal of FMD? Psychological profiling probably drew similar assumptions to mine: a man of limited intellect whose responses would be cumbersome, slow and ill-considered. Was he the archetypal "fall-guy," ready to be framed in a way designed to discredit the livestock sector of farming?

(F) Food for Thought?

DEFRA's report on the origins of FMD/2001, June 2002, drew the following conclusions:-

(1) The disease spread from Hotshill Farm, Ryton-on-Tyne, Northumberland.

(2) Contaminated meat was probably the source of infection at Hotshill. However, "It is unlikely that the origin of this material and the route by which it entered the UK will ever be identified."

(3) A raid on a Northumberland warehouse found illegally imported meat from either China or HongKong. Yet there was no specific link between this meat and the disease outbreak, although veterinary staff believe the virus originated in Eastern Asia.

(4) The contaminated meat blamed for the epidemic was probably illegally imported.

(5) Unauthorised food imports were likely to have been destined for the catering trade.

Meat which is legally imported carries certification stating it originates from a FMD free country. Where vaccination is carried out, only de-boned mature beef is allowed to enter the UK. Illegal meat has a far greater risk of contamination, especially if either on the bone or with lymph nodes unremoved.

There is a negligible chance of FMD in both legally and illegally imported meat products if fully processed. This involves being "...treated and hermetically sealed; de-boned and heated to 70 degrees C; de-boned and matured for nine months; de-boned, subject to pH<6. However, virus will survive in partially cured products such as bacon or air-dried meat for up to six months." (From CVO's Report on the Origin of the UK FMD in 2001, DEFRA, 2002)

For a time, swill from the nearby British Army barracks at Albermarle came under suspicion. This establishment used meat imports from Uruguay, where FMD has been an ongoing problem. However, the virus strain in South America was not Pan-Asiatic Type O. In any event, all food imported for military bases has to comply with UK and EU regulations.

Much speculation has arisen concerning illegally imported foodstuffs. There have been a few instances where, at point of entry to Britain, some revolting matter, totally unfit for human consumption, has been discovered. Generally, unauthorised edibles would undergo the same degree of meticulous preparation afforded to legal imports. No criminal network operating a racket of this nature would tolerate lapses which could lead to food contamination and its consequences - including lengthy jail sentences! In my view, the likelyhood of FMD being introduced to the UK via clandestine routes is extremely remote.

These four newspaper extracts refer to the diet of Mr. Eve's pigs, the last offering an explanation of how FMD arrived at Hotshill Farm. I have discussed food imports: the following refers to all edible matter in the UK, irrespective of source. The adjectives "uncooked" and "unprocessed," as applied to leftovers, need clarification with regard to microorganism survival and propagation.

Firstly, I will look at food destined for human consumption.

During the last decade, regulations governing preparation, processing and packaging food have been tightened, resulting in Britain possessing the strictest codes of practice in Europe. Occasionally, poisoning outbreaks occur but these are effectively traced to their source and remedied - sometimes involving closure of the supplier, wholesaler and/or restaurant.

Foodstuffs purchased by hotels, schools, hospitals - and Chinese restaurants - have, in general, been pre-processed and packaged. For example, meat would have been de-boned, with much of the fatty tissue and offal excised. (* Refer to the "Addenda and Errata" Section for a personal horror story!) Then, the residue will have been cooked under stringent guidelines concerning temperature and length of time. Regulations affecting preparation of dairy produce, grain, vegetables and fruit are equally prescriptive. Extra care would be taken with salads, where some fruit and vegetables are eaten raw.

It would be at least a million-to-one chance that the FMD virus could withstand such treatment.

Secondly, I will attempt to clarify the distinction between "processed" and "unprocessed" waste.

Processing such matter involves re-heating and pureeing in order to kill pathogens accumulated between leaving the restaurant kitchen and arrival at a designated swill production unit. Waste which has NOT undergone such treatment can be classified as "unprocessed," bearing in mind that the food would have ALREADY been subjected to rigorous preparation beforehand. Of course, it is possible that small amounts of raw meat, fatty tissue and bone will be thrown out with the leftovers, but the infinitesimal chance of FMD contamination would be a risk shared by ALL catering establishments, not just those in Northumberland.

The notion of a super-virus surviving a voyage of up to several thousand miles, being washed, fried in oil or roasted in an oven, then, finally, to become part of a slurry and re-heated is derisive, even if the last stage of this incredible journey was omitted!

Thirdly, it is necessary to sort out the obfuscation regarding Mr. Eve's pig-swill.

Two newspaper reports refer to uncooked and unprocessed matter, yet he was cleared in court of bringing this onto his farm. Another press item mentioned a video made by Trading Standards Officers during 22nd February 2001 showing "... metal drums being hauled from under a trailer and emptied. They contained bones, semi-liquified flesh and other waste." (Northumberland Echo, 31st May 2002) Mr. Eve was unable to account for these.

In fact, the pig-swill came from neighbouring Wylam House Farm, Ryton-on-Tyne, owned by a Mr. John Whyte. This establishment was not only another piggery but also a waste food processing unit.

Mr. Eve was only licensed to feed such matter to his herd. Since he was exonerated of bringing unprocessed swill onto Hotshill Farm, the presence of those metal drums and their foul contents remains a mystery. It is most unlikely that they were connected with his neighbour.

It would be logical to assume that pigs on both farms ate the same processed matter, this having undergone exactly the same preparation regime. I have been unable to establish whether Wylam House succumbed to FMD infection at the same time it was discovered at Hotshill. In any event, all livestock within the latter's vicinity would have been culled on grounds of being in "dangerous contact."

The following questions arise:-

Looking through press reports of the court proceedings, I have not seen any mention of my queries outlined above. If the answer to (9) is negative, did any journalist present at Mr. Eve's hearing wonder why these matters were not considered? Although reporters can only record what took place at Hexham Crown Court, newspaper editorial columns are able to raise and discuss the wider implications, including omissions.

(G) What Next?

Regurgitating conspiracy theories, whilst of interest to armchair agitators, is no substitute for proper investigative journalism. In my view, the entire Hotshill Farm episode needs to be re-examined by a fully independent reporting team which will brook no nonsense from officialdom. All attempts to impede progress should be made public on a "name and shame" basis. Of course, if there is nothing to hide...

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