Sheep, pigs and scapegoats

Everybody from animal rights campaigners to Saddam Hussein has been blamed for starting the spread of foot-and-mouth.

Sandy Starr

Topics Politics

Since the start of the foot-and-mouth crisis in February 2001, farmers, commentators and experts have been looking for what caused the disease. Everybody from the UK government to the animal rights movement to Saddam Hussein has been charged with a conspiracy to propagate foot-and-mouth (1) – but we still seem none the wiser as to how it started.

Here are eight of the explanations currently doing the rounds:


The fact that the foot-and-mouth virus is capable of airborne transmission gave commentators their first, natural suspected cause of the outbreak. ‘The source of the disease is unknown but is so virulent it can spread on the wind’, said the Guardian on day one of the crisis (2). The UK government’s chief vet Jim Scudamore described how infected pigs could create ‘a plume of infection blown in the wind which falls on other farms’ (3).

As a force beyond anybody’s control, wind embodied the sense of panic in the early days of the outbreak, and made the spread of the virus seem like plain bad luck. Dr Alex Donaldson from the Institute for Animal Health blamed the sheer number of virus particles and the European climate for the airborne phenomenon, rather than pointing the finger at human carriers (4).

Meat production

The inanimate wind soon became insufficient to bear the blame for foot-and-mouth, and commentators were quick to round upon modern farming techniques instead. Taking their cue from the substandard hygiene at the primitive Burnside farm suspected of being the source of the outbreak, they made the illogical leap of blaming practices in more modernised and intensive farms for foot-and-mouth.

George Monbiot summed up the mood with his argument that ‘Foot-and-mouth is an ancient disease which thrives on modernity’ (5), a sentiment that prevailed in spite of the few lonely voices who pointed out that foot-and-mouth should be combated with more modernisation of farms, rather than less (6).

The blame was then passed from modern farming in general to the pursuit of cheap food in particular – with the Guardian linking foot-and-mouth with ‘listeria, salmonella, BSE, E. coli, swine fever and infectious anaemia’ (7), categorising them all as common outcomes of the quest for cheap food. Even more bizarrely, the French daily Le Monde linked foot-and-mouth with rail accidents (8), categorising them both as common outcomes of cost-cutting.


Trying not to look as though he was blaming the farmers, Tony Blair passed the buck on to UK supermarkets, accusing them of holding the farmers in an ‘armlock’ to produce cheap food (9). Agriculture minister Elliot Morley followed up the charge by announcing a rethink of common agriculture policy away from overproduction (10). Few people seemed to spare a thought for those consumers who are less well off, and few people seemed to notice the sneering undertones of the tirade against ‘cheap food’. The dietary options of many would be severely reduced if there were no cheap meat or supermarkets (11).


The transmission of the virus to the notorious initial Burnside farm was eventually attributed to the pigswill that the pigs there consumed (12). Pigswill rapidly gained credence as the most likely source of the disease – it was the only possible cause mentioned by agriculture minister Nick Brown in his address to the House of Commons on the crisis (13), and it remains the only possible cause explicitly listed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) on its website (14).

Imported meat

A sinister note was already struck on the first day of the crisis when Nick Brown claimed that ‘something illegal has happened to bring this into the country’ (15). Sure enough, the UK strain of the virus was identified as being similar to strains in Japan, Korea, Mongolia and Russia (16), and imported meat became public enemy number one.

When a container of illegal meat, labelled as being for a Chinese restaurant, was found hidden inside a load of household goods (17), Nick Brown was quick to name meat intended for the Chinese restaurant industry as a possible source of the outbreak (18). But following demonstrations by Chinese residents in the UK who objected to being scapegoated (19), he was equally quick to backtrack and condemn ‘racist’ media reports of the connection between foot-and-mouth and Chinese restaurants (20).


The unlicensed movement of livestock by farmers was also targeted. The temporary borrowing of animals by farmers in order to increase herd numbers and cheat European Union quota schemes was slammed as a likely spread of infection (21). A report drafted for Tony Blair suggested that hundreds of unlicensed livestock movements had taken place since the start of the outbreak (22); and the army made no friends by accusing farmers of intentionally infecting their own animals in order to cash in on compensation (23).


‘In the 1967 outbreaks, they shut all the footpaths and there was no one out at all – now they are walking through the farms, going everywhere’, complained one farmer when tourists were added to the list of potential disease-spreaders (24). His question was answered by nationwide restrictions imposed on access to vast areas of the countryside, putting a huge dent in the earnings of the British tourist industry and rendering a simple countryside holiday at best difficult and at worst impossible (25).

Regret soon set in, followed by a backtrack. A thousand miles of canal towpaths were reopened for Easter, the government encouraged more tourism trips to the countryside, and Tony Blair and his colleagues spent weekends in the countryside to improve its reputation (26). The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) published a report, ‘National Tourism Recovery Strategy’, which passed the blame for stigmatising the countryside back on to the media, accusing it of ‘unbalanced coverage’ (27).

Unheeded advice

After the foot-and-mouth panic hit the one-month mark, with the benefit of hindsight it became popular to level accusations that various pieces of crucial advice, if followed, could have averted the crisis. It was discovered that the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, originally set up by the UK government in response to the BSE scare, had recommended the outlawing of pigswill containing catering waste as early as 1998 (28).

To make things worse, it was revealed that MAFF had several years ago purchased a computer system called EpiMan, designed to predict cases of foot-and-mouth in order to avert an outbreak, but had never got round to installing it. Even when the foot-and-mouth outbreak did occur, MAFF’s experts couldn’t figure out how to install the system and had to call in specialists from New Zealand (29).

What next?

Seeking scapegoats for foot-and-mouth will benefit nobody – especially if it is based on speculation rather than hard scientific fact. New Labour may find it convenient for a day or two to blame supermarkets or Chinese restaurants; and the Conservative Party may find it enjoyable to blame New Labour (so long as it provides a distraction from debating policies before the election). But none of this helps understand how and why foot-and-mouth started.

(1) See Rural myths catch military connection in their net Guardian, 22 March 2001

(2) Farms: yet another crisis, Guardian, 22 February 2001

(3) The farmer at the centre of the crisis now gripping agriculture, Guardian, 24 February 2001

(4) See How fragile virus can wreak havoc, Guardian, 1 March 2001

(5) Disease and modernity, by George Monbiot, Guardian, 27 Fenruary 2001

(6) See Farming: the bigger, the better, by Brendan O’Neill

(7) Paying the price for cheaper food, Guardian, 25 February 2001

(8) See Vache folle, fièvre aphteuse, pollution maritime: la réduction des coûts pour dénominateur commun, Le Monde, 12 March 2001

(9) See Blair offers hope to farmers, BBC News Online, 2 March 2001

(10) See Rethink on cheap food policies, Guardian, 2 March 2001

(11) See Supermarkets are – super by Jennie Bristow

(12) See Infected swill ‘was likely cause’, BBC News Online, 13 March 2001; and Tracing source of outbreak from pigswill, Guardian, 19 March 2001

(13) See Brown’s statement in full, 27 March 2001

(14) See Source of outbreak on the Maff website

(15) Farms: yet another crisis, Guardian, 22 February 2001

(16) See Battle to trace disease source, BBC News Online, 22 February 2001

(17) See Smuggled meat blamed for epidemic, The Times, 27 March 2001

(18) See Brown proposes pigswill ban, Guardian, 27 March 2001

(19) See Chinese protest scapegoat claims, The Times, 9 April 2001

(20) We don’t blame Chinese, says Brown, Daily Telegraph, 9 April 2001

(21) See Farmers accused of cheating, Guardian, 19 March 2001

(22) See Blair to meet farmers’ leaders, Guardian, 11 April 2001

(23) See Farmers accused of infecting their herds, The Times, 11 April 2001

(24) Many ignored advice to stay away from the countryside, Guardian, 26 February 2001

(25) See On holiday in foot-and-mouth country by Jennie Bristow

(26) See Ministers promote Easter tourism, BBC News Online, 12 April 2001

(27) National Tourism Recovery Strategy, DCMS, 11 April 2001 (.pdf format)

(28) See Virus alert ignored for three years, Observer, 25 March 2001

(29) See Ministry ‘failed to install’ epidemics computer, Guardian, 31 March 2001

(30) See Poll monitor: little comfort for Tories, BBC News Online, 21 March 2001

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Topics Politics


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