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Health and Consumer Protection

Speeches Commissioner Byrne

Strasbourg, 3 April 2001

Statement of Commissioner David Byrne to the European Parliament on the latest developments on foot-and-mouth disease (FMD)

President, Members of Parliament,

I am pleased to update you further on the current outbreak of FMD.

To date, the outbreak remains largely confined to the UK where almost 99% of cases recorded to date have occurred. The outbreak commenced with two cases detected on 20 February. Over the following weeks, however, the number of cases rose exponentially with daily totals sometimes fifty or more in number. As we speak the total number of cases in the UK stands at over 900.

The situation in the other affected Member States is, fortunately, not as serious. There have been two cases in France, 12 in the Netherlands and one case in Ireland. However, it would be very foolish to underestimate the potential for the disease to spread.

All Member States are putting huge resources into combating the current outbreak. This is especially the case in the Member States which have recorded cases and in the UK in particular. There has been a very high level of solidarity and cooperation between Member States in the current difficult circumstances.

The Commission's strategy towards the crisis has been to act decisively and quickly. Our aim is to assist the Member States to eradicate foot and mouth disease. There is a consensus on this objective. Other considerations - very important considerations - arising from the crisis will have to wait until this objective has been achieved.

We are maintaining a very high level of co-ordination and co-operation with the Member States. For example, there have been eight meetings of the Standing Veterinary Committee since the crisis broke. A nineth meeting is taking place in Brussels as we speak and two further specialist meetings of laboratory experts on FMD and on zoo animals have also taken place. There are also innumerable daily contacts and information exchanges with and between the Member States.

We are acting urgently on all new information. For example, the Commission has acted to impose restrictions on exports and animal movements from affected Member States and regions within 24 hours of confirmed outbreaks. There have been no fewer than eighteen (18) decisions adopted by the Commission since the outbreak of the crisis.

We are acting with as much transparency as possible. The crisis has been discussed, in addition to the meetings of the SVC, in the Agriculture Council (twice), in the COM AGRI (5 times) , in the European Council, in COPA (or with professional organisations) and in countless press conferences and technical briefings. This is my third appearance in Parliament to update you on developments. I have also asked my officials to be available at all times to keep you informed on the progress of the outbreak.

We are adopting a regionalised approach, where possible, to any new outbreaks. This is designed to allow trade to continue with, however, very severe safeguards to prevent further spread of the disease. The Commission has worked hard to convince third countries that exports from the Community are safe and are not a risk.

I met the new US Secretary for Agriculture, Ann Veneman last week in Washington and she has undertaken to regularly review the situation. Our efforts are continuing with major export markets, like Japan, to secure recognition for this regionalised approach. I remain satisfied that the protective measures in place are sufficient to safeguard against the export of the virus to third countries.

I will now turn to the full range of Community measures in place. As I noted earlier, there are no fewer than eighteen (18) decisions adopted by the Commission to date. And there will, no doubt, be more. They fall into two broad categories. First measures with Community-wide effect. Second, measures which are specific to individual Member States.

Turning to the first category, Community wide measures (excluding the UK), there are still very important restrictions on movements of live susceptible animals. Essentially, with a few exceptions, movements are only possible from a holding to an abattoir or to another holding. In both cases, movements have to be authorised by the competent authorities of the place of departure and of destination.

This has proven essential to avoid the possible further spread of disease on the Continent. Another essential measure was the obligation to slaughter all sheep imported from the UK between 1 Februrary and 21 February. This has been proven by the epidemiology of the French outbreak two weeks later (13/3) as the most crucial decision to avoid further spread on the Continent.

There are also important safeguards to ensure that:

- any such transports do not allow animals to come into contact with animals from other holdings except for direct slaughter;

- vehicles are cleaned and disinfected;

- adequate notice of movements of animals is given; and

- residence of susceptible animals in the holding of dispatch for 30 days; and

- movements of susceptible animals have not taken place into the holding of dispatch within the previous 30 days.

Finally, there is now a suspension in place on staging posts while the maximum transport time is maintained. These points are designed to provide facilities for the resting, watering and feeding etc. of live animals in transit. However, they are also an opportunity for animals to be cross-contaminated by other animals.

I will turn now to Community measures in relation to individual Member States. In relation to the UK, there is a total ban on exports of susceptible live animals, untreated meat and meat products etc. However, Northern Ireland will be excluded from this measure with effect from today with two important exceptions.

There will be no exports of live susceptible animals. And there will be no change in the current restrictions in the area of Newry and Mourne where Northern Ireland's only case of FMD was detected almost 5 weeks ago.

In relation to France, the Netherlands and Ireland, there is a ban on the export of live susceptible animals. There is also a ban on the export of untreated meat and meat products, milk and milk products etc. from the affected regions in Ireland (1 county) and in the Netherlands (4 provinces) , and in France (3 departments).

These restrictions are adapted as circumstances change. Hence, in France for example, the ban on exports of live susceptible animals will remain in force until 12 April. However, the restrictions on exports of untreated meat and meat products etc. will only apply to the 3 départements where the second case was detected on 23 March as of today and following detailed investigations of the epidemiological situation.

The existing restrictions in relation to Ireland remain in place until 19 April. In the Netherlands, where there have been a total of 12 cases since the first case was detected on 21 March, the situation will be reviewed in the SVC today and tomorrow. In both of these Member States, the restrictions on products are confined to the regions where the cases have been detected.


That summarises the situation insofar as restrictions on exports and movements of animals is concerned. I would now like to turn to two other important measures adopted in recent days. These concern the Commission decision to approve vaccination, in certain clearly defined circumstances, in the Netherlands and in the United Kingdom.

The decision in relation to the Netherlands provides for "suppresive vaccination". This involves the vaccination of animals, pending their pre-emptive killing and destruction, to prevent the further spread of the virus. It has a role to play where there is insufficient capacity to carry out this killing and slaughter with the speed necessary to prevent the further spread of the disease.

The Netherlands is in this unfortunate position and the Commission and the Member States in the SVC are sympathetic to this situation. Accordingly, it is entirely appropriate to allow vaccination to take place in these circumstances. However, as the animals concerned will be killed and destroyed it will not jeopardise the Netherlands long standing policy of non-vaccination as a preventative measure.

The decision in relation to the United Kingdom is more complex. It is confined to cattle only in the counties of Cumbria and Devon. Other species would not be vaccinated but pre-emptively killed in a certain radius around infected premises. In contrast with the Netherlands, the vaccinated bovines would not necessarily be killed and destroyed.

However, there would be very strict restrictions on the movements of these bovine animals, by and large dairy cows, which would effectively confine them to the regions concerned. There would also be important restrictions on the movement of their milk and milk products and - when eventually slaughtered - of meat and meat products from these animals.

I think it is a measure of the consequences of vaccination that the UK has not yet decided if it will avail of the Commission decision in the circumstances in which it has been requested.

I fully appreciate that vaccination is a very emotive subject. It certainly appears as an attractive alternative to killing and destroying animals. But the reality is far, far different. And this reality is that there are important limitations to vaccination. And that there is still no widespread support for such a policy.

It has not been asked for by the Member States, including the Netherlands and the UK. It has not been asked for by the European Council which discussed the crisis in Stockholm recently. And it has not been asked for by the farming community at large. Nor have I heard any demands for its introduction in this, my third appearance, in the Parliament.

The reality is that it is a complex issue with formidable challenges. I have spoken to you before of some of these challenges:

- There is no test approved to distinguish individually vaccinated animals from infected animals which allows the disease to continue to persist in the animal population;

- There are seven serotypes of FMD, each with several sub-strains. Vaccination is only effective against the targeted strain and for a limited period only. As the disease is not endemic in the EU, the selection of the appropriate vaccine strain would be a pure lottery

- There are over 300 million susceptible livestock (cattle, sheep, pigs, ...) in the EU which would need to be vaccinated to give full coverage;

- It would jeopardise our trade between the Member States and to certain countries which insist on imports only from FMD-free countries which do not vaccinate.

In the light of these circumstances, there is still a consensus that eradication of the present outbreak, without use of generalised vaccination, is the best course of action.

I will not take up much more of your time. But, before concluding, I intend that when this outbreak has been eradicated, that we will carry out a very thorough examination of all the contributory factors to the current outbreak and the consequences.

These will include issues such as the following which fall within my own area of responsibility:

- Weaknesses in traceability of animals and especially of sheep and pigs;

- Animal transport and especially measures which allow live animals from different Member States to cross-contaminate one another;

- Vaccination and whether there needs to be a departure from the current policy of "no" to generalised vaccination. And, if so, in what circumstances and on what conditions;

- Sanitary controls on imports, bearing in mind that the existing EU provisions are adequate, if respected, not only to keep out the virus but also to ensure public health requirements are respected.

But there are other, wider, issues which will also need to be considered:

- Costs: the present outbreak already has a full potential cost to the Community budget of up to €170 million;

- Research into new marker vaccines and discriminatory tests which will allow vaccinated animals to be easily distinguished from infected animals - thus giving much greater scope to protective vaccination. There has already been good progress in this area and it needs to be intensified;

- Further discussions in the relevant international bodies, especially in the OIE, on the current approach towards the virus.

However, these issues can only be addressed when the current crisis has been brought under control. I look forward and hope that this will take place sooner rather than later.

Thank you for your attention and I now look forward to your views.

Released on 04/04/2001


Speeches Commissioner Byrne



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