14 January 2002: Britain’s foot-and-mouth disease epidemic ends

‘You are what you eat.’ Never was that more true than on 20 February 2001, when the first case of foot-and-mouth disease was diagnosed at an abattoir in Essex.

The government’s environmental department, Defra, traced the source of what would turn into a major epidemic back to a ‘pig finishing unit’ at Burnside Farm in Northumberland. There the pigs were fed ‘processed waste food’ as permitted under the Animal Byproducts Order 1999.

Foot-and-mouth disease, Defra concluded, was transmitted by the movement of animals, and through the air. The disease spread rapidly across the country, infecting pigs, sheep and cattle. Cumbria was by far the worst affected with 893 outbreaks of the disease. In September, the number of reported cases peaked at 2,026.

To contain the spread, mass culls were ordered, which included healthy cattle. Around 6.5 million animals were slaughtered. So great was the task of disposing of the carcasses that the army was drafted in to organise the burning, and the burial of the bodies in mass graves.

British exports of meat and related products were banned, with the total cost to the economy put at around £8bn. The agricultural sector bore the brunt of the crisis and over £1.3bn was paid out in compensation to farmers. Tourism also suffered greatly.

The government came in for heavy criticism for its handling of the crisis. It was accused of being unprepared and slow to act, while not enough vaccinations were available to prevent the spread of the disease.

After September, there were no more reported cases of the outbreak, leading Defra to declare the foot-and-mouth crisis over on 14 January 2002. But it would be many years more before the industry would recover.