Foot-and-mouth: Essex abattoir owner recalls discovery

By Patrick Byrne
BBC News Online

Image caption,
Foot-and-mouth disease was first spotted in pigs awaiting slaughter at an Essex abattoir

Last weekend marked the 10th anniversary of the start of the foot-and-mouth crisis in Britain which saw more than six million farm animals slaughtered and their carcasses burned.

The outbreak was spotted by a worker at Cheale Meats, an abattoir in Essex, on 19 February 2001.

Owner Paul Cheale said it began a series of events that put his family business on the brink of disaster. It also plunged the country into its worst farming crisis for decades.

Mr Cheale said: "A worker feeding pigs in a lairage (pen) spotted some of them limping.

"He called a vet for a closer look and he suspected it was suspect foot-and-mouth disease.

"It could also have been swine vesicular disease which displayed the same symptoms and was not as serious."

Everything disinfected

The ministry was called and an expert diagnosed foot-and-mouth disease. The abattoir was cordoned off, the farms isolated and vets everywhere put on alert for further cases.

Image caption,
Paul Cheale saw his business disappear overnight when foot-and-mouth disease was found

It later emerged that animals on nearly 60 farms in England were displaying symptoms of the disease by this time.

Records at Cheale Meats, at Little Warley near Brentwood, showed the diseased pigs came from farms in Buckinghamshire and the Isle of Wight.

"Samples were taken on the Saturday but the analysis confirming foot-and-mouth disease did not come through until after the weekend," Mr Cheale said.

Most of the output went for export and as soon as other countries heard about the outbreak, bans were imposed.

"A large part of our business disappeared overnight," he said. "The animals had been left in the lairage because they could not be processed on the Friday because we were so busy.

"They had been inspected by vets and passed as healthy. They then displayed the symptoms of FMD.

"Other animals could have arrived with the disease earlier in the week but did not show symptoms. They had already been sent out for consumption," Mr Cheale said.

Foot-and-mouth disease does not harm humans but is very serious for sheep, cattle and pigs.

The European Commission immediately banned all British milk, meat and livestock exports and said the disease situation required "reinforcing the control measures".

A second suspected case was discovered in Gloucestershire and livestock movements were banned in a five-mile area surrounding all suspected cases.

But the industry remained optimistic the outbreak could be contained.

Carcass pyres

Agriculture secretary at the time, Nick Brown, said: "If we can get on top of this and get back to a disease-free status quickly then hopefully the damage can be minimised.

Image caption,
Pyres of burning carcasses became a familiar sight in some parts of England's countryside

"But if it goes on for some time the damage could be substantial."

The United States, Ireland, South Korea and the Netherlands banned pig imports from Britain.

Shadow agriculture minister at the time Tim Yeo said: "The government should have acted sooner to prevent the risk of this disease entering Britain through substandard meat imports."

Chief veterinary officer Jim Scudamore ordered all animals at Cheale Meats to be slaughtered immediately.

This was the beginning of a chain reaction that saw foot-and-mouth disease devastate herds across the UK over the next few months and the sight and smell of animal carcass pyres became commonplace in many parts of the countryside.

The outbreak lasted for most of the year and the last cases were dealt with in the autumn of 2001.

Clean-up bill

The cause of the outbreak was traced to a 55-year-old farmer in Northumbria who was put on trial a year later.

Bobby Waugh, who ran a pig fattening farm in Heddon-on-the-Wall, Northumberland, was found guilty of nine animal health and cruelty charges.

His farm regularly supplied livestock to Cheale Meats and it had been inspected by a vet only a month before the outbreak.

Image caption,
The outbreak was traced to Bobby Waugh's farm and he was prosecuted

Waugh faced a total of 15 charges at South East Northumberland Magistrates' Court where he said: "I don't regret anything I did because I didn't know the disease was there."

Judge James Prowse found Waugh guilty of five counts of failing to notify the authorities of the outbreak at Burnside Farm.

Waugh was convicted of two counts of causing unnecessary suffering to pigs and cleared on two similar charges.

He was banned from keeping animals for 15 years, ordered to pay £10,000 prosecution costs and a clean-up bill of £30,000.

He could not pay, was made bankrupt and lost his farm.

He still regards himself as a scapegoat "in the wrong place at the wrong time" and is adamant that the disease was in the country long before it was found in his herd of pigs.

Workers at Cheale Meats were hired to help with the subsequent cull and disposal of cattle so few of them were made redundant and the Cheale Meats business recovered.

More on this story

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.