Foot and mouth: have lessons been learned?

The government's handling of the foot-and-mouth outbreak has so far surpassed 2001's response. But it remains to be seen whether the cost to farming and non-farming businesses alike can be kept down.

The latest foot-and-mouth (FMD) crisis has been handled well so far, says Sean Rickard in the FT.

In 2001 it took the Government's Cobra emergency committee a month to get involved; this time it swung into action immediately. It took just three hours on Friday to ban national movement of animals; last time it took three days.

If it turns out that FMD has spread beyond the farm in Surrey, "I hope we will see evidence of other lessons being learnt". Two factors from 2001 continue to loom large: the image of a countryside closed to the public and littered with pyres of animals, and the enormous cost now put at some £9bn. About half of that was incurred by nonagricultural rural businesses, yet because they lacked a powerful lobby group such as the NFU, they received almost no compensation. "Yet non-farming rural businesses employ more people than farming and can more fairly claim to be the backbone of the rural economy."

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Indeed, says Johann Hari in The Independent. The British beef export market brings in £700m a year and employs fewer than 40,000 people, while tourism brings in more than £70bn and employs nearly two million. The answer is easy: vaccinate all hoofed animals at birth. It costs almost nothing and no animals get sick or die. The only drawback is that we wouldn't be able to export our beef. We are getting there, says Magnus Linklater in The Times. Few can "stomach a repeat of the nightmare of 2001". The battle for the vaccine hasn't been won, but the case is starting to look "unassailable". In 2001 it was stated there were no tests to distinguish a vaccinated animal from a diseased one; so vaccination would mask the extent of the epidemic and carriers could spread the virus unchecked. There are now accepted tests, quick and easy to carry out, that reveal the difference. Other advances include farm-gate' tests, which allow a vet to determine on the spot whether a herd of cattle or flock of sheep has been infected. Faster diagnosis means more efficient vaccination.

It shouldn't be an issue, says Peter Melchett in The Guardian. Vaccines against serious diseases are used in farming all over the world, including organic farming, and we all routinely consume food from vaccinated animals.

We should make it clear to Gordon Brown that we will happily eat products of animals vaccinated against FMD to avoid a repeat of 2001. It's the farmers who stand in the way because of fears that vaccinated meat will be less profitable, says Alice Miles in The Times. And so the taxpayer carries the risk, as we always do. The estimated bill for this outbreak is already £500m. This time it seems it is the Government's fault and the case for compensation is clear, but it is still disturbing to learn that no more farmers are insured against FMD today than in 2001. Farmers insure property and equipment and take out liability insurance in case they make anybody sick, but they don't insure against disease in crops or animals. Why not?

Because the economics of farming mean it isn't worth it, says Tim Price of NFU Mutual. "So here is an industry economically incapable of insuring against predictable risks." We should be debating how farmers can make a living from farming. And instead of "railing" about how everybody has got it in for them, farmers should be "directly challenging consumers more about what they are prepared to pay, and for what".