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Brussels, 16 November 2004

Questions and Answers on the Commission’s management of the 2001 Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak

The European Court of Auditors today published a special report scrutinising the European Commission’s role in managing the major outbreak of foot and mouth disease that took place in the EU in 2001. This memo gives background information on the 2001 epidemic and outlines the Commission’s views on some of the issues raised by the Court of Auditors in its report.

What happened in 2001?

In February 2001 an unprecedented epidemic of foot and mouth disease (FMD) broke out in the EU, first in the UK, followed by Ireland, France and the Netherlands. In the UK alone, more than 3 million animals had to be destroyed in order to contain the epidemic. The total number of animals destroyed across the EU was more than 4 million. The Commission took steps to prevent the disease spreading around the EU and helped the four affected countries fight the epidemic.

How effective was the Commission’s response to the 2001 epidemic?

The Court of Auditors found that during the crisis the Commission rapidly took the necessary emergency measures, such as notifying Member States of the outbreak, surveillance and slaughter of potentially infected sheep, and the closure of markets. It also found that the relevant EU rules had been properly applied by the Commission. This is in line with the findings of the European Parliament’s inquiry into the handling of the 2001 epidemic, adopted by Parliament in December 2002.

Despite the scale of the outbreak and the need for emergency measures, the efficient response to the 2001 epidemic meant it did not result in a wider crisis in the EU’s food and livestock markets – and thereby avoided potentially very expensive market measures being introduced. By September 2001 the last remaining cases of FMD in the EU had been eradicated. After a wait of several months to ensure no new FMD cases where reported, the entire European Union re-gained its disease free status in January 2002.

What lessons did the Commission learn from the 2001 FMD epidemic?

Since 2001 the Commission initiated a number of improvements. Most notably, a new EU law on the control of FMD outbreaks was adopted by the EU Agriculture Ministers in September 2003 (see: IP/03/1307), new rules on the tagging of sheep and goats were approved by the Council in December 2003 (see: IP/03/1761) and since January 2003 the EU has tightened controls on personal import of food by travellers entering the EU (see: IP/02/1927).

How much money did tackling the 2001 epidemic cost?

The four Member States hit by the 2001 epidemic spent a total of 2.7 billion euro on compensation to farmers and other contractors involved in the work plus on other eradication measures, such as decontamination of farms. They asked for 1.6 billion euros of this to be covered by the EU’s Emergency Veterinary Fund. The amount actually paid by the EU, however, is likely to be considerably less than this: scrutiny and audits by the Commission have revealed a number of instances of Member States paying too much compensation. The audit will soon be finalised, however already at this stage it is clear that from the 1063 million € requested for compensation for the destruction of animals, the EU budget will only pay 475 million €.

The rapid and effective response to the 2001 FMD epidemic stopped it running out of control. This prevented a more general crisis in the EU’s food and livestock markets – something that could possibly have cost the EU billions of euros in market intervention measures.

What issues does the Court of Auditors’ report raise?

The Court of Auditors believes that, prior to 2001, there should have been better preparedness planning for an FMD epidemic. It says that certain weaknesses in EU and Member States systems for preventing and controlling an FMD outbreak should have been addressed in advance of the 2001 outbreak.

The Court points to a number of inconsistencies in the level of compensation paid to farmers in the different Member States hit by the epidemic and states that the Commission should have provided national authorities with more guidance. The Court calls for the Commission to regularly review the EU’s arrangements for prevention and control of animal diseases and for the EU financial rules applicable to future epidemics to be clarified.

What is the Commission’s reaction to the Court’s report?

The Commission welcomes the recognition that it acted swiftly to help contain the 2001 FMD epidemic.

The Commission is sceptical, however, as to whether more preparedness planning or different EU rules could have made a significant difference to the course of the 2001 epidemic. There were plans and systems in place in 2001. The central problem was the scale of the epidemic, which stretched the veterinary services of some of the affected Member States to their limit.

Is the Commission going to clarify the EU’s financial rules for animal epidemics?

The Commission is in the process of revising the rules governing the EU’s Emergency Veterinary Fund and hopes to present a formal proposal on this as soon as possible.

Nonetheless, the degree of harmonisation of national compensation systems called for by the Court is neither realistic nor desirable. The market value of animals can vary significantly from country to country so setting compensation rates at EU level would risk of over-compensate some farmers and under compensate others. The current EU legislation sets the price for compensation of animal at the market value in the relevant country on the day before discovery of the disease.
The Court’s proposal that compensation be denied to farmers suspected of of not complying with EU veterinary rules is not legally workable. Compensation and penalties are treated as separate issues under EU law. Moreover, the EU Veterinary Fund pays money to national governments on the basis of national eradication programmes. The Commission does not process payments to individual farmers.

Further Information

For further information on FMD see:

For the Commission reaction on the general report of the Court of Auditors see: IP/04/1361 and MEMO/04/259.

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