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Top-level meetings in bid to protect farming industry

By Ashleigh Wallace

Stormont minister Michelle Gildernew is to meet the Agriculture Committee today to brief members on the latest reaction to the foot and mouth outbreak at a farm in Surrey.

The agriculture minister is also due to hold meetings with representatives from the farming industry - including meat exporters and retailers - to inform them of the latest developments.

A fresh outbreak of the disease at a farm close to Guildford resulted in the immediate slaughter of cattle and a Government ban on the movement of livestock on the mainland.

Health and safety experts are currently carrying out tests at a lab in Pirbright which was identified at the weekend as the possible source of the outbreak.

However, thanks to a swift response from authorities in both the north and south of Ireland, there has been no detection of foot and mouth here.

In addition, no restrictions have been placed on the movement of livestock.

Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew said she hoped European Union officials may grant Northern Ireland special regional status to export meat following its cross-border response to the outbreak in England.

Revealing she has spoken to the First and Deputy First Minister about the export status, Ms Gildernew said: "It is hugely important. We have just had an export ban lifted. We did not want another one.

"I really wanted to protect the industry here and enable them to carry on. Farming has gone through challenging times over the past number of years. "

The agriculture minister visited Belfast Port yesterday to witness the biosecurity measures which have been put in place at all Ulster's ports and airports.

Passengers footwear and vehicle tyres are all being disinfected as they enter - a scene which echoed the measures put in place during the last foot and mouth outbreak in 2001.

More than 50,000 animals were culled in Northern Ireland, resulting in around £7.5m paid out in compensation to local farmers.

Saying the latest outbreak was "a great concern for the local farming industry", Ms Gildernew said: "My department is focused on ensuring the disease is not introduced here.

"I wish to advise the wider general public that our plans are robust, precautionary and measured.

"I am in ongoing contact with my counterparts in London and Dublin to maintain a joined-up approach to the situation and will be keeping our policies under review - particularly the ban on imports of fresh meat and unpasteurised milk."

A spokesman for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development said any farmers with suspicions about their livestock should contact their local vet.

The Department has also set up a special helpline on 028 9052 4999.

FMD: Four key questions

What is foot and mouth disease?

FMD is a highly infectious disease which affects a number of species of animal. Among livestock, that includes cattle, sheep, pigs and goats as well as llamas and alpacas. Wild animals such as hedgehogs and deer and zoo animals including elephants are susceptible. The disease is caused by a virus of which there are seven types, each causing similar symptoms. Infected animals suffer a fever and blisters, chiefly in the mouth and on the feet. The illness is rarely fatal except in the case of young animals, but affected animals - particularly dairy cattle - suffer serious illness, loss of milk yield, spontaneous abortion, sterility chronic lameness and, in some cases, chronic heart disease.

How is FMD spread?

The blisters infected animals develop contain virus particles, as can their saliva, milk, dung and blood. The disease can be contracted from contact with another affected animal, through foodstuffs or by eating or coming into contact with some part of an infected carcass. It can be spread by the movement of animals, including livestock, pets, wild animals and vermin, as well as people and vehicles. The virus can also be airborne and can travel considerable distances under favourable climatic conditions.

Can humans contract the disease?

According to the Department of Health, human instances of the disease are very rare, with only one FMD case recorded in the UK - in 1966. In that case, the disease was similar to flu, with some blisters. Humans can develop hand, foot and mouth disease, which is unrelated and does not affect animals. The Food Standards Agency says the disease in animals has no effect on the human food chain.

How can FMD be dealt with?

The virus is destroyed by hot, sunny, dry conditions or certain disinfectants but can survive for long periods under favourable conditions such as cold and darkness. There is no cure and the basic method for control is slaughter of all animals on an infected premises and places which have had "dangerous contact" with it.

Belfast Telegraph


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