Europe's foot-and-mouth politics
April 9, 2001
by Dennis T. Avery
The Washington Times, April 3, 2001
Pity poor Europe. Plagued by fears of mad cow disease and gene-altered crops, the Continent is now suffering a plague of foot-and-mouth disease among British livestock.
The European answer to all such problems is always the same: organic farming. True to form, "industrial farming" is being blamed for the new outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Europe.
The facts show quite a different story. First, the affluent countries with intensive agricultures are the ones free of foot-and-mouth disease, while the disease is running rampant among the world's peasant farms.
(Caused by a highly contagious virus that affects nearly all cloven-hoofed animals, the disease is harmless to humans and often spread by wild animals such as deer and boar.)
Second, foot-and-mouth disease has been known in Europe for centuries in the past, when all farming was "organic."
The English government commanded in 1450 that no butcher sell meat from animals that died of "murren" - what they called foot-and-mouth back then.
The British outbreak of foot-and-mouth, the first in that country since 1967, is the virulent new Pan-Asian strain. It came from outside Europe, probably from farms in some Asian backwater.
Finally, the first farm to which British authorities traced this outbreak of foot-and-mouth is the sort of small family-type farm beloved by the eco-zealots. The small pig farm, run on a shoestring by two rubber-booted brothers in Northumberland, was recycling uneaten food from the local school cafeteria.
If there is a simple remedy to be found here, it is to quit feeding table scraps to pigs. However, this would make livestock production even more "industrialized."
Jim Hoagland, a city guy who writes for The Washington Post, pontificated, "The building of agro-industrial empires that centralize food production, buying, processing, and distribution has overwhelmed protections that local farming and consumption once offered nations."
Hogwash. The suspect pigs were trucked 300 miles to a slaughterhouse in Essex. But in the 19th century, live cattle used to be herded on foot from the Scottish Highlands to London, spreading tuberculosis and undulant fever along the way.
Britain had a dozen foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks between 1839 and 1902, when there was neither "industrial farming" nor truck rides for pigs.
Mr. Hoagland fearlessly predicts, "This type of anecdote will bring grimmer views about the impact of "globalization" and market expansion to Europeans. The new political battlegrounds of Europe will be the slaughterhouse and the supermarket. Food safety, not tax cuts and missile defenses, will make and break political careers there."
But "mad cow disease," for example, is a new and fully natural phenomenon linked to fewer than 100 deaths. Governments were as helpless to predict it as to predict the AIDS virus.
Realistically, protecting the public from a food-borne threat that never causes a human epidemic or a death will bring no political approval at all.
Government bureaucrats undoubtedly warned the new Pan-Asian version of foot-and-mouth disease would try to attack Europe's shores. But had they tried to ban travel to Asia and the Middle East - or even make every traveler walk through a foot bath - business travelers and tourists would quickly have revolted.
No one can guarantee absolute food safety. The planet is filled with zillions of bacteria, viruses, insects and predators determined to appropriate the human food supply.
Most of them are constantly mutating, like the food-and-mouth virus. We can keep them mostly in check with modern technology, but we cannot eliminate them.
When the inevitable crisis occurs, guess who gets the ax? The nearest government official, as when the Belgian government recently had to resign because very small amounts of dioxin were found in some formulated poultry feed. The ministers had nothing to do with the accidental contamination. Dioxin traces are not even much of a threat to humans.
The Economist editorialized recently, "Like it or not, the preferences of modern consumers for cheap, varied, all-year-round food mean that farming is going to remain intensive."
The magazine notes that where farming is most intensive, in the United States and Australia, "The incidence of disease is lower than in Europe, perhaps because the very scale of operations makes it more necessary for farmers to maintain tight veterinary controls, and to innovate with new drugs and pesticides."
Food scares will continue to reward mostly the scaremongers who misuse them to advance preset agendas like organic farming. Politicians need to delegate food safety to a powerful professional science agency and step as far away from the firing line as they can.
We should all keep in mind, as well, that our few victories to date against viruses (annual flu vaccines, virus-resistant crops) have come with the aid of biotechnology.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.