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SPEECH/01/625

David BYRNE

European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection

The European approach to control and prevent FMD

International Conference on Prevention and Control of Foot-and-Mouth Disease

Brussels, 12 December 2001

Mme President, Ministers, ladies and gentlemen

This is an important conference. It has been triggered by the outbreak of FMD in the EU this year. This outbreak quickly led to one of the biggest animal disease crisis ever recorded. Only BSE can compare with it in its impact.

The current outbreak now appears to have been eradicated. The last case in the UK was on 30 September, 73 days ago.. However, this does not allow us to close the book on the crisis. Its impact will live with us for a long time.

It has not only had very important economic consequences here in Europe but has also badly shaken public confidence in our system of agricultural production. We have to learn the lessons from this painful experience and ensure that similar damage is not done in the future.

Need for a new approach towards FMD

A starting point in the review of our approach towards FMD has to be the existing measures in place. In the EU, these are centred on a key Council Directive (90/423) on FMD that was agreed by Member States in 1990.

That year marked a significant departure in approach. Member States agreed that large-scale prophylactic vaccination should be abandoned. The experience of the following decade vindicated this decision. Outbreaks were rare and quickly eradicated.

There was a consensus on all fronts political, scientific and farming that FMD could be contained. The principal candidate countries for EU membership also follow this policy.

Nonetheless, even before the crisis the Commission had signalled its intention to bring forward proposals for a new Council Directive. The expectation had been that this would be an important but routine proposal.

The political climate has now changed. Prior to the current outbreak, FMD was not a political issue. There were requests for more detailed provisions than currently in the Directive for the consequence of an outbreak.

However, there were no suggestions that the current approach was fundamentally flawed. As is often the case, it took a crisis to reveal the shortcomings. We have now lived through that crisis. We must learn from it and come forward with a more effective framework of measures to tackle FMD.

This conference is an important part of that process.

How the current mechanisms work

Unfortunately, in any crisis you can only work with the instruments and mechanisms available to you. We do not have the benefit of rolling the clock back and using hindsight. These mechanisms are only available to our critics.

The framework available to the Commission can largely be summarised as follows:

  • It is primarily geared at stopping the spread of the disease from the Member State of origin allowing time for its eradication;

  • The most immediate protective measure is a ban on all movements of susceptible live animals and untreated animal products from the infected region or country;

  • This is accompanied by measures aimed at the eradication of the disease, targeted on the stamping out of holdings where infection is confirmed or suspected;

  • To facilitate this stamping out policy there are further severe restrictions on animal movements in and around infected holdings;

  • Vaccination is foreseen in limited circumstances only and is not viewed as an alternative to a stamping out policy;

  • Free of FMD-virus infection without vaccination, the highest OIE category, remains the goal.

For better or for worse this was the agreed strategy for more than a decade.

The record in dealing with the current crisis

The Commission first learned of the suspected outbreak in the UK on 20 February very late in the evening. The timing of the outbreak could not have been worse. The focus and attention of the veterinary services in the Commission and in the Member States was already fully taken up by the long-running BSE crisis.

My intention is to speak only on the Community perspective. My colleagues here today from the Agriculture Council, like Margaret Beckett, Joe Walsh and Laurens Van Brinkhorst, can give their accounts of the outbreak. But, I know at first hand of their huge personal efforts and of their officials to deal with a very difficult situation.

However, it is still necessary for me to make some general remarks on the experience of the individual Member States in an EU context. This experience has been mixed.

France and Ireland both alerted by the disease situation in the UK, dealt very effectively and efficiently in stamping out their two and one incidents respectively. This was also achieved without use of vaccination.

The Netherlands experience was more complex. To begin with, there were many more cases 26 in all. The very high animal density in the Netherlands also left the country vulnerable to an epidemic.

The fresh memories of the outbreak of CSF in 1997, where about 11 million pigs were slaughtered and destroyed, no doubt weighed heavily on the public. Certainly, there was a very understandable wish to avoid a repeat of that painful experience.

The Dutch Authorities took the precaution of imposing very important restrictions on animal movements on learning of the outbreak in the UK. This initiative was very successful in limiting the spread of the virus. When outbreaks did occur, related to animal movements before the UK case was detected, they were quickly stamped out.

Emergency vaccination was approved by the Commission in accordance with current legislation. This proved useful in bringing the outbreak under control. However, its contribution to reducing the number of animals to be slaughtered is less evident.

Taken together, the experiences in these three countries give mixed messages. In the Netherlands, in particular, there was a very strong reaction to the slaughter and destruction of animals.

Nonetheless, considerable comfort can be been taken from the speed with which the outbreaks were eradicated. The effectiveness of the controls put in place was also reassuring. All the outbreaks were directly related to live animal movements from the UK before the outbreak there was detected.

The experience in the UK was of a far greater order of magnitude. Almost 99% of the total number of FMD outbreaks were recorded in the UK.

The costs were huge, both directly for the public purse, farmers and the rural community. The slaughter and destruction of about 4 million animals, in the full glare of the TV cameras, also did huge damage to the image of animal production.

The UK will draw its own conclusions from this painful experience. There are no fewer than three inquiries underway into the crisis. Clearly, the Commission will look closely at the inquiry reports for their implications for the EU approach towards FMD.

We will also look to our own experience of the UK outbreak. There were four large scale inspection missions carried out by the Commission's Food and Veterinary Office in the course of the outbreak in the UK in addition to missions to the other affected Member States.

Certain factors particular to the UK are already evident. First and foremost, it was where the outbreak first took place other Member States had more time to prepare.

Second, it took hold in the sheep population very quickly where it went largely undetected until infected sheep came into contact with cattle.

Third, there were very significant movements of these infected sheep before the first case was detected in pigs by an official veterinarian at a slaughterhouse.

Finally, the public veterinary authorities were, understandably, seriously under-resourced for dealing with an outbreak on the scale which emerged.

This is an explosive cocktail and we are now all too familiar with the consequences. However, we do not need an inquest to know that far reaching change is needed if we are to avoid a repeat in the future.

A consensus to deal with the crisis together

Even in the darkest of crisis, there are usually some positive factors. I drew particular encouragement from the very competent handling of the crisis by the Commission services. A relatively small core of officials in HQ in Brussels and in the Food and Veterinary Office in Dublin did a quite remarkable job in co-ordinating the Commission's role in managing the Community response.

On the political front, there was very strong consensus on the approach to be followed. Thankfully, efforts to exploit the crisis to political advantage were minimal. This perhaps reflects lessons learned from the BSE crisis. However, I would like to think that it also owes a lot to the manner in which the Commission handled developments:

  • Action was quick and decisive. Once an outbreak was confirmed, the Commission took an immediate decision to freeze movements of susceptible live animals and animal products from the affected region or country.

  • A very high level of co-ordination was maintained. The Member States were very quickly notified on the situation and meetings of their veterinary experts took place in the Standing Veterinary Committee at the first available opportunity. FMD was discussed in no fewer than 27 meetings of this committee.

  • There was total transparency. Throughout the crisis the press were kept fully informed of developments. There were regular press conferences, briefings and all the key decisions and events were reported on our website.

  • The Community's trade interests with third countries were strongly defended. I am fully satisfied that the Commission played very fair with our trade partners. We have followed the OIE code and kept our borders open to imports under certain conditions from countries with FMD. This put us in a strong position to insist that unreasonable and unjustified restrictions were lifted with varying degrees of success.

  • Finally, most important of all, a political consensus on the right approach was maintained. There were regular discussions in the Commission, in the Agriculture Council, in the European Parliament and in the European Council on developments. The first priority in all institutions was to stop the spread of the disease. The inquest into what went wrong could wait until later.

As a measure of the consensus it is notable that each and every Commission decision taken in the course of the outbreak over 60 - received a favourable opinion from the Member States. Not a single decision needed to be referred to the Agriculture Council where discussions focused on the strategic issues.

The flaws in the system

The main weaknesses, real or alleged, which contributed to the crisis are well known. A non-exhaustive list includes the following:

  • Inadequate controls on imports and/or illegal introduction of animal products;

  • Swill feeding of catering waste to animals;

  • Poor veterinary surveillance, especially on farms and overall lack of resources;

  • Failures in identification and traceability of animals, especially sheep;

  • Frequent movement and assembly of animals;

  • Inadequate controls on staging points established for animal welfare purposes in case of long distance transport of live animals

  • The intensive nature of current livestock production systems in Europe and the development of densely populated livestock areas;

  • The absence of internationally recognized and validated tests to allow vaccinated animals to be distinguished from infected animals.

Many of these are already factored into our current responses. For example, many of the movement restrictions introduced are still in place and will remain in place. Swill feeding of catering waste is already banned in 13 Member States and will end from 1 November next year throughout the EU.

A new proposal on traceability of sheep will be presented by the Commission in the next several weeks. Ideally, this should be based on electronic identification but it may prove necessary in the short term at least to stick with more traditional ear-tag systems.

Certain conditions for imports of small quantities of animal products or the introduction of commodities not complying with EC standards for ship-supply are being reviewed and suitable proposals will be tabled soon.

Stricter provisions on animal transport are currently before the Council and Parliament and shorter travelling times are also in prospect.

The appropriate response to several other potential factors is more problematic. For example, to what extent is the intensive nature of livestock production a factor?

Ironically, FMD is overwhelmingly to be found in countries with a predominantly extensive animal husbandry. The wide spread of the virus in the UK has its origins largely in sheep which are the least intensively reared animals. Similarly, the effects were felt most in Cumbria, Devon and parts of Scotland, all rural areas.

Conversely, the intensive pig holdings of the South-East of the UK escaped virtually untouched. This is not the time and place for a debate on our current systems of agricultural production

In the past the Commission has proven to be more ambitious for reform than the Member States. It remains to be seen if recent experience with BSE and FMD will change the climate for real reform.

These examples are illustrative of the complex mix of factors involved. Our future strategy will have to be even more responsive. How will we adapt to enlargement, including to candidate countries ever closer to regions where FMD is endemic?

There are already well known weaknesses in existing controls at border inspection posts in the EU. How can these not only be corrected but upgraded to meet the even greater challenge ahead?

Similarly, do we need to follow the example of the US where there are very visible efforts at international points of entry to discourage and detect illegal imports of animal products?

And how do we guard against potential deliberate acts of sabotage to infect our livestock populations? It is very disturbing that the origin of the virus was probably as simple as an illegal introduction of a meat product for personal consumption. Perhaps, even something as simple as a sandwich.

These are some of the issues which are currently being addressed or which will be taken up in further proposals which will follow this conference. They will be followed closely.

Vaccination the magic bullet to kill the FMD monster?

As the crisis grew and the number of animals slaughtered increased, demands for vaccination grew in intensity. The concept was appealing. Why not, instead of slaughtering and destroying the animals, vaccinate them instead. Especially when these animals could even be safely consumed.

These arguments clearly have an appeal and certainly made sense to a large segment of the public. But, just because a proposal is popular does not mean that it is right. Especially, when the full facts and consequences have not been fully thought through.

Let me speak some facts, therefore, about the Commission approach towards vaccination. First, the Commission did not follow a non-vaccination policy throughout the outbreak. The Council Directive provides for emergency vaccination and the Commission maintained a bank of 29 million doses of antigen for potential formulation into vaccine.

Subsequently, the Commission agreed the conditions for emergency vaccination in both the Netherlands and the United Kingdom on the basis of the existing Directive. We also signalled agreement in principle to Belgium and Germany but neither Member State followed through with formal requests.

The vaccination decisions approved took two forms as defined in 1997 by the Scientific Veterinary Committee. Suppressive vaccination where the animals in question were slaughtered and destroyed when the necessary resources to do so became available. And protective vaccination where the animals are not slaughtered but there are restrictions on trade from the regions concerned.

The advocates of vaccination will of course argue that there was a third option that was not considered. This is of course prophylactic vaccination of large segments or indeed of the entire susceptible animal population .

Frankly, the die was cast on that issue when the Community adopted its current approach towards FMD in 1990. Then, the decision was taken by the Council to abandon prophylactic vaccination. This was not a question of trade facilitation only, although that was very important.

Instead, Member States had succeeded in eradicating FMD and they enjoyed the highest OIE status "FMD free, without vaccination".

The new approach was to use emergency vaccination only in the circumstances outlined by me a few moments ago. This approach worked admirably for a decade. The record speaks for itself. Only a few very isolated outbreaks occurred, all of which were quickly eradicated without vaccination.

There were no pressures for a re-introduction of vaccination. On the contrary, the veterinary services in the Member States would have reacted with dismay to any such suggestion. Let's not forget that a succession of crisis, especially BSE, were already putting huge strains on existing veterinary health systems.

The debate is, in any event, rather academic. We cannot correct history. But even if we could wind the clock back vaccination would not have provided the answer.

It is simply not credible to suggest that Member States would have supported large scale prophylactic vaccination imposed on them prior to the events of this year. This is especially the case for the UK where vaccination was abandoned long before the Community followed suit.

The proposal which the Commission will present shortly for a new Directive on the control of FMD will, however, provide the opportunity for a full debate on prophylactic vaccination. Its proponents will have to convince the Member States and the Commission that the framework is right for its introduction.

There are legitimate arguments, however, over the role for emergency vaccination in the course of an outbreak. In such a situation certain key information is available. For example, the strain of the virus, the regions affected, the numbers of animals potentially at risk from infection etc.

The one major stumbling block to vaccination in these circumstances has been the availability of a test to distinguish between vaccinated animals and animals which have been infected.

This in turn makes it very difficult to safely conclude that the virus has been eradicated and is not instead incubating in the livestock population waiting to break out again.

Very strict movement controls are therefore necessary on the movements of vaccinated animals and their products. The use of vaccination, especially where the vaccinated animals are not slaughtered, has therefore very important implications for a country's OIE disease status.

A more effective role for vaccination in the future has to be found

These obstacles will have to be overcome if vaccination is to have a wider role in the future. There are encouraging signs that serological tests which allow such a distinction to be made are now becoming available.

The Commission has actively encouraged and financially supported the development of such vaccines. Prototypes have already been used in tests in adjacent countries. The Commission will be encouraging the OIE and our trade partners to quickly recognise these tests.

There have been encouraging signs of progress in this respect but I leave it to Mr Vallat, who will be speaking shortly, to outline the OIE perspective on vaccination.

It is already difficult to convince the public of the case for the slaughter of animals which have been vaccinated. This task will be even more difficult if there are tests that allow us to identify if herds of vaccinated animals are with the highest possibly certainty free of the virus.

Consumers, however, must also accept that they have a role in allowing vaccines to be used. There have been indications of strong consumer resistance to the marketing of meat and products from vaccinated animals. This makes no sense as they are perfectly safe and we even import such products from third countries.

We must all authorities and consumers face up to our responsibility, even a moral responsibility, to allow for the use of these tests if it saves us from the destruction of large numbers of uninfected animals.

Concluding Remarks

This conference would have been inconceivable a year ago. It would not have been credible to bring together key figures from the FAO, the OIE, the Member States and Institutions of the EU and from third countries to discuss Foot and Mouth Disease.

I would be very disappointed if the crisis and its aftermath is seen only as an issue for the EU. I hope, therefore, that it will also lead to a fundamental rethink of the approaches towards FMD in key international organisations like the FAO and the OIE and in third countries.

The Commission's intention is that the conference and the working groups in particular will feed into further discussions later this month in the Agriculture Council. These in turn will feed into the preparations already underway in the Commission on a number of important new legislative proposals to deal with FMD.

The Commission will present in particular a proposal for a new directive on FMD early in the new year. I expect full discussion of this proposal in the European Parliament and the Agriculture Council. I would also encourage a strong interest in the proposal from civil society and our international partners.

My objective is clear. I want to reach agreement, by mid 2003 at the latest, on a new approach towards FMD. It is simply inconceivable that we could ever allow a repeat of the crisis that took place this year. I can identify certain clear objectives which must be met:

Strengthening our defences against further outbreaks. This will require more effort and resources to tackle illegal imports of potentially contaminated products.

A livestock population which is managed with the prospect of infectious diseases like FMD in mind. This objective will require improved identification and traceability and more restrictions on animal movements to reduce the potential for cross-contamination.

Improved surveillance and control measures to ensure that outbreaks are spotted quickly and that decisive action is taken to eradicate them before they take hold.

The exploitation of the new tests to ensure that vaccination is a more effective tool in combating FMD and that the unnecessary slaughter and destruction of healthy animals can be avoided.

A more coherent international framework, working with the OIE in particular, which allows trade to take place but also takes account of other legitimate concerns.

These objectives will require imagination, resources and determination. That is the challenge that lies ahead. I hope that I can count on your support in meeting this challenge.

Thank you for your attention.


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