"The overwhelming priority is to identify the source of the infection, to make sure it is contained, to take all the precautionary steps that are necessary to ensure that containment. Once that has been done, and we have to proceed on a precautionary basis, then the first thing is to get Scottish livestock moving again." - ALEX SALMOND
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FARMERS yesterday said the ban on meat exports, imposed following the outbreak of foot and mouth in England, should be lifted early in Scotland.
The three-month ban was brought in after the discovery of the virus on a farm in Surrey.
Last time foot-and-mouth hit Britain, it led to the culling of between 6.5 and ten million animals at a cost of about 8.5 billion to the economy.
Farmers and the meat industry in Scotland argue that, if the virus has been contained, it is unfair that producers hundreds of miles away are punished. Northern Ireland and Ireland are already calling for the European Commission, which is in charge of the ban, to lift export restrictions in their area.
Yesterday the First Minister, Alex Salmond, said it was vital the country's meat industry should get moving again as soon as possible.
A three-month export ban would cost the Scottish industry millions of pounds just when the market is picking up again following the lifting last year of the ban on beef exports because of mad cow disease.
This time it is hoped increased biosecurity can contain the spread of the disease.
The latest outbreak has been linked to a lab - home to a government research centre and a company that makes foot-and-mouth vaccine - in Surrey and last night remained confined to the one farm, although cattle have been destroyed in the area as a precaution.
Although scientists remain cautious at this early stage of the outbreak, there were calls in Scotland for moves to minimise damage to the industry as soon as possible.
James Withers, the deputy chief executive of the National Farmers Union in Scotland, said Scotland was only just recovering from a ten-year ban on exporting beef imposed following the concerns over the human form of mad cow's disease.
"If we only have a single case in Surrey, we cannot afford to be out of Europe for three months," he said.
Mr Withers said that if the outbreak is contained to Surrey, the NFU will be calling on the European Commission to regionalise the export ban so areas hundreds of miles away can start moving meat earlier.
Louise Welsh of Quality Meat Scotland said the industry could lose millions of pounds.
Since the export ban on beef was lifted in Scotland in March 2006 it has earned Scotland 15 million and lamb exports are worth 18 million per annum.
Speaking at Turriff Agricultural Show yesterday, Mr Salmond said the Executive would look at export bans once the disease has been contained.
He said: "The overwhelming priority is to identify the source of the infection, to make sure it is contained, to take all the precautionary steps that are necessary to ensure that containment.
"Once that has been done, and we have to proceed on a precautionary basis, then the first thing is to get Scottish livestock moving again. And we will be pushing for rapid decisions, certainly in Scotland, that we can make to do that and then of course we can address features like the export ban."
But Aberdeen microbiologist Professor Hugh Pennington said it was unlikely such as move would be made lightly.
"It is still a hot virus, so I suspect even if the government said it was a one-off, they will have a hard time persuading the EU to lift the ban early," he said.
The foot-and-mouth outbreak surfaced on Friday on the farm near the Surrey village of Normandy. All movement of livestock was banned across the UK. At the same time a three-month ban on the export on all meat from cloven-hoofed animals was brought in.
Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, cancelled his holiday to chair meetings of COBRA, the government's civil emergency committee, and talked to Mr Salmond about the implications of the outbreak.
Yesterday, officials were investigating the Pirbright laboratory after it emerged the strain of the virus was the same as one used at the facility and not one recently found in animals.
Last night The Scotsman learned health and safety experts were examining the drains and ground water in the area because of concerns the virus had been spread during recent heavy flooding.
The infected animals were destroyed, as were the cattle on two additional sites.
Q & A: THE FACTS
Q: What is foot-and-mouth disease (FMD)?
A: FMD is a highly infectious disease which affects cloven-hoofed animals such as sheep, pigs, cattle and goats. There are seven strains.
Infected animals suffer a fever and blisters, chiefly in the mouth and on the feet.
Q: How is FMD spread?
A: It is found in fluid in the blisters and also in saliva, milk and dung. Livestock can contract the virus from direct contact with other animals on contaminated food. It can also travel miles on the wind.
Q: Can humans contract the disease?
A: 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, with flu-like symptoms and blisters.
Q: How can FMD be dealt with?
A: 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.
Q: Why was the 2001 outbreak so devastating?
A: The 2001 outbreak led to the slaughter of between 6.5 and 10 million animals, ruined many rural businesses and is estimated to have cost the country up to 8.5 billion.
The mass pyres smoking in fields became the defining image of the outbreak, which closed the countryside and destroyed the livelihoods of thousands of tourist and rural businesses as well as farmers.
Q: Are we facing a repeat of six years ago?
A: Officials appear to have acted much more swiftly than in 2001, having learned their lesson from that outbreak. Environment secretary Hilary Benn said the national ban on animal movement was imposed within three hours of the case being confirmed, compared to around three days in 2001. Four other potential cases have been reported and examined by vets who found they were negative.
Only one farm has so far tested positive, compared to the 57 that were already infected by the time the disease was discovered in an Essex abattoir in February 2001.
Q: What restrictions are placed on exports once an outbreak is discovered?
A: An automatic three-month ban on exports is imposed by the EU. This runs from the time an outbreak is declared over. If there is another discovery in England the ban will begin again.
Q: What effect will it have on Scotland?
A: As part of Great Britain, Scotland is covered by the 90-day export ban. However, if the current outbreak is contained to Surrey, the NFU and the meat industry in Scotland are going to lobby the EU for regionalisation so that the ban can be lifted earlier in Scotland.
Other areas of the UK, such as the north of England, may also make a case for early lifting of the ban.