The recent outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) in Indonesia has raised the profile of this highly contagious viral disease that causes vesicular and erosive lesions of the mouth, nose, teats and feet of all cloven-hoofed animals. It does not kill many adult animals, but the disease is particularly debilitating in cattle and pigs, with severe productivity losses and prolonged recovery.
Pigs are considered amplifiers of the infection because they excrete large quantities of the virus in their exhaled breath. Cattle are considered good indicators because of their extreme susceptibility to infection, while sheep are ‘silent shedders’ due to being less susceptible and only showing very mild signs.
I happened to be in the UK on my OE in 2001 when they experienced an FMD outbreak. I worked as a Temporary Veterinary Inspector (TVI) for the UK’s MPI-equivalent Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) for several months, mainly based in Cardiff covering south and mid-Wales.
I thought that some reflection on my role and observations during this time might shed some insight into what is involved in dealing with an FMD outbreak.
Firstly, the outbreak originated from a mismanaged pig farm that was feeding food waste from local restaurants and cafes in Northumberland in the north of England. The swill had not been correctly heat-sterilised, and likely contained illegally imported FMD-contaminated meat.
Sheep on a neighbouring farm became infected and were, unknowingly, sent to a market or saleyard where other sheep became infected. At the time, there were high numbers of livestock movements out of markets and, as a result, infected sheep were distributed around various other markets and farms which resulted in FMD being distributed widely around the country. All this occurred in the few days between FMD being first detected in a pig abattoir in Essex and DEFRA shutting down all livestock movements.
“In the UK, we were typically dealing with herd sizes of less than one hundred cattle and a few hundred sheep. So, you could imagine the logistical challenges of dealing with this in herds of several hundred cattle and flocks of thousands of sheep as in New Zealand.”
My role as a TVI varied throughout the course of the outbreak but ranged from being called out by farmers who were concerned that they might have animals infected with FMD, to supervising culls, through to being involved in blood testing and supervising animal movements.
All of this came after about an hour’s initiation. This included watching a 15-minute video on the clinical signs of FMD and running through the process of which forms a farmer needed to sign when actioning a cull before throwing some gumboots, disinfectant and disposable overalls into the boot of the supplied rental car.
My first job was a call-out to a dairy farm where the farmer had four or five cows all drooling from the mouth. Bracing myself for a long day and trying to remember which forms to get signed, it turned out to be an explosive outbreak of Woody Tongue!
Whenever FMD was identified on a farm, a chain of events was hastily thrown into motion. Unlike Mycoplasma Bovis, where the level of contagiousness is extremely low, the high level of contagiousness with FMD meant speed was of the essence.
The immediate priority was to stop all movement of people and vehicles on and off the farm. Then the slaughter of all the livestock was undertaken by teams of slaughtermen with captive bolt guns.
As the TVI, the responsibility was on you to make the call on whether the animals were showing signs of FMD. If you decided it was FMD, then you actioned the cull. It was emphasised that walking off an infected farm that had been misdiagnosed as clear was extremely serious because you were going to be spreading the virus around further farms. Samples for testing were taken from slaughtered animals during the cull, so there was certainly plenty of pressure to make the right call.
You also became a bit of a support person by default for some farmers and their families who were often overwhelmed and upset by the fast-moving process. Once the decision for a cull was made, there was quite a bit of paperwork regarding stock valuations, previous livestock movements etc. Therefore, you often ended up being in close communication with the farmer for several days.
Most farmers were intensely involved with the culling process of their stock, gathering them up and yarding etc. In fact, with the very contagious nature of FMD, they could not have gotten off the farm even if they wanted to. Many of the farmers said that they found the silence of a destocked farm after everyone had left worse than the actual process of the cull.
In the early days of the FMD outbreak carcasses were disposed of on-farm by burning on pyres. It soon became apparent that the time and quantity of material required for this method of disposal was not practical for a large-scale outbreak. Therefore, carcasses were removed in sealed lorries and trailers to plants for rendering. This required extensive cleansing and disinfecting of these vehicles as they left the infected farms and all the associated biosecurity.
The logistics of slaughtering and removing the carcasses of all the animals from a farm was a challenge. Sheep were generally herded into small temporary pens that could be dismantled and removed after they had been slaughtered, to allow access for front-end loaders to remove the carcasses. A similar approach was undertaken for cattle, but sedation with xylazine was usually administered beforehand to allow safe handling in temporary pens.
In the UK, we were typically dealing with herd sizes of less than one hundred cattle and a few hundred sheep. So, you could imagine the logistical challenges of dealing with this in herds of several hundred cattle and flocks of thousands of sheep as in New Zealand.
All the livestock were slaughtered on neighbouring properties in contiguous culls. This was carried out as soon as possible to head off any transmission of the virus over the fence, often simultaneously with the infected property. It proved to be a very effective part of the eradication process, as exemplified by incidents where farmers refused to cooperate with DEFRA and allow contiguous culls to occur. Often the results were that these farms rapidly became infected, causing further contiguous culls around them.
Farmers were compensated for their culled livestock. The compensation turned out to be well above market value as it considered the farmers’ inability to earn income for an extended period following the culls.
For the typical farmer, on what had been a depressed livestock market before FMD, it often turned out to be the case that they were better off having the disease and being culled out and compensated than having to attempt to farm through with no income and the inability to sell or even move animals – sound familiar?
However, there were plenty of cases of animals that were irreplaceable to some farmers. For example, I believe that all the sheep from one of the oldest recorded sheep flocks, with pedigree records going back two or three centuries, were culled.
It took nearly a year from the first case of FMD for the UK to be able to declare itself officially free of FMD and resume normal farming activity. With 2,000 cases – and six million cattle, sheep and pigs slaughtered – it cost the UK Government approximately three billion pounds to achieve this. Perhaps fortunately for the UK, agriculture only contributes about 0.5% of GDP, so it was not an insurmountable setback for such a large economy.
This compares to New Zealand, where agriculture contributes over 5% to our GDP and earns about $50 billion in export receipts. All this would cease overnight with an FMD outbreak.
The crippling effect of FMD on New Zealand’s economy is well documented. It begs a reminder to accurately fill out those annoying declaration forms about where you have been when returning to New Zealand from overseas. The relatively minor delay through customs, from mentioning you may have visited a farm or have certain produce on hand, is far outweighed by the significant consequences of FMD inadvertently entering the country.