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Health and Consumer Protection

Speeches Commissioner Byrne

Speech by David Byrne, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, Foot and Mouth Disease - Informal Agriculture Council meeting in Sweden, Östersund, 10 th April 2001


I am pleased to update you on the latest situation regarding foot and mouth disease. I will be as brief as possible as time is short and I am sure that you will all wish to contribute to the discussion.

The situation in relation to the outbreak is currently as follows.

In the UK there have been, as of yesterday, 1163 outbreaks. While the daily incidence is now falling it will be some time before we have a full picture of the situation. Nick Brown will update us on how he sees the future evolution of the outbreak.

In the Netherlands, there have been 20 outbreaks in total since the first case was detected on 21 March. France has not reported any new cases since its second case on 23 March. Remaining restrictions are scheduled to lapse on 12 April – this Thursday. Similarly, Ireland has not reported any new case since its one and only case on 22 March. The existing restrictions will also lapse on 19 April. In both Ireland and France, therefore, the stamping out policy has proven successful.

In all other Member States, there are also grounds to consider that they have succeeded in avoiding any outbreaks.

The Commission’s strategy towards the crisis has been to act decisively and quickly. 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 ninth meeting is taking place in Brussels as we speak.

We are acting urgently on all new information. For example, the Commission has acted to impose Community restrictions within 24 hours of confirmed outbreaks. There have been no fewer than twenty four decisions adopted 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 European Parliament on several occasions, in the European Council and in countless press conferences and technical briefings.

We are working hard to convince third countries, like Japan and Russia, that exports from the Community are safe and are not a risk. I also met the new US Secretary for Agriculture, Ann Vanneman in Washington recently and she has undertaken to regularly review the situation. However, until it is clear that the outbreak is confined to the UK and under control, we are fighting an uphill struggle in lifting the full range of restrictions.

The Community wide measures (excluding the UK), are targeted on very important restrictions on movements of live susceptible animals. This is aimed at ensuring that the potential for any outbreak to spread is reduced to a minimum. I think it fair to point out that it has already proven its worth. All the outbreaks outside of the UK can be traced to animal movements which took place before the imposition of the movement restrictions.

Over the past number of weeks, the movement restrictions have been refined. On the one hand, to allow for some limited flexibility, for example to permit movements directly to abattoirs for slaughter. On the other hand, to tighten up on potential weaknesses, for example by insisting on standstill periods before animals can be moved to or from a farm.


I would now like to speak on two other important issues. Vaccination. And the follow-up to this crisis when we have succeeded in eradicating the outbreak.

Turning first to vaccination, let me be clear: the Commission’s preferred option in dealing with this outbreak is a policy of stamping out. This is the option which has been adopted in both France and Ireland. It has been painful but I firmly believe that it has proven its worth.

The Commission also accepts, however, that there are circumstances where emergency vaccination may be considered. First, "suppressive vaccination", in the Netherlands, where there is insufficient capacity to slaughter and destroy animals. In such circumstances, animals may be vaccinated to prevent the further spread of the virus until time is found for slaughter and destruction.

This policy has subsequently been refined in both the Netherlands and the UK to allow for "protective vaccination" of cattle which are exempted from being immediately killed and destroyed. Instead, there are very strict restrictions on the movements of these cattle and on their milk and milk products. And – when eventually slaughtered – of meat and meat products from these animals.

A potential obstacle to this policy is consumer resistance to products from vaccinated animals. While such products are perfectly safe, consumers may insist on their right to know and refuse such products.

Where the Commission does not see a role is for "general prophylactic vaccination" which would involve the vaccination of entire animal species or the entire livestock population. The reasons are well known to you:

  • There is no test to distinguish vaccinated animals from infected animals which allows the disease to continue to persist in the animal population;
  • There are seven strains of FMD, each with several sub-strains. Vaccination is only effective against the targeted strain and for a limited period only;
  • the selection of the vaccine strain is a lottery as FMD is not endemic in the EU. It is impossible to predict the precise serotype or strain of virus accidentally introduced;
  • 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 to certain countries which insist on imports only from FMD-free countries which do not vaccinate.

Generalised prophylactic vaccination has not been asked for in this Council. Nor has it been asked for by the European Parliament or the European Council which discussed the crisis in Stockholm recently. The present Commission approach has also been fully supported in the Standing Veterinary Committee where your veterinary experts have discussed the issues in depth.

To conclude, I intend that when this outbreak has been eradicated, we will need to carry out a very thorough examination of all the contributory factors to the current outbreak and the consequences.

This needs to include issues such as the following:

  • Vaccination and in what circumstances there could be a departure from the current policy of "no" to generalised vaccination. New and more effective marker vaccines and discriminatory tests could, for example, increase the available options;
  • Weaknesses in tracability 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;
  • Sanitary controls on imports, bearing in mind that the existing EU provisions are adequate, if respected, to keep out the virus.
  • Costs: the present outbreak already has a full potential cost to the Community budget of up to €250 million – a figure which continues to rise;
  • Further discussions in the relevant international bodies, especially in the OIE, on the current approach towards the virus.

There are some issues in particular which I intend to give very urgent attention. Animal transport provisions to begin with. I also intend that the same veterinary and sanitary controls should apply throughout the EU. This would involve an end to exemptions for imports for military personnel and for transhipments through free-ports.

Another area in need of urgent review is our controls at points of import to the EU. I have already stated – and repeat – that the existing Community legislation is adequate to address the threat from illegal and unsanitary imports. The question arises, however, if this legislation is being properly and uniformly applied.

For example, we need to review the operations of border inspection posts if we are to preserve the integrity of the internal market in imported foodstuffs. We have to aim for a situation where the same high level of controls exists in all such posts. If that requires greater resources, in the Member States and in the Commission, it will be a small price to pay compared to further crisis of the current nature.

We must also take account of our limitations. Not all imports are through veterinary posts. And not all imports are legal. The full co-operation of all relevant services, not just the veterinary services, is necessary to guard against such abuses. We will need much more effective awareness campaigns in this respect.

These are only a very few issues which I look forward to discussing with you in much greater depth in the future.

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


Speeches Commissioner Byrne



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