After the foot-and-mouth disease epidemic that is spreading across Europe — and will likely make its way to the United States — two issues really dominated the story from an animal rights point of view. First, is the slaughter of animals really necessary? Second, did animal rights activists cause the epidemic?
The first question is easier to answer for sure — if the goal of an agriculture system is to produce meat cheaply and ensure that the foot and mouth outbreak is contained, then quick slaughter of animals is the best way to go about controlling the disease. If anything, European officials were not vigorous enough in their slaughtering of animals. A study by the UK’s Imperial College that was recently published in Science noted that to stop the disease not only should infected animals be slaughtered, but all animals within a 1.5 kilometer radius of infected farms, typically within 48 hours, in order to minimize the risk of the disease spreading. UK officials admit that while they were successful at having infected animals slaughtered, they weren’t initially able to keep up with the so-called pre-emptive slaughtering of animals near infected farms.
But wouldn’t vaccination be a viable alternative? Selective vaccination is already being explored by European officials, but there are severe drawbacks to using it as a widespread solution. First, it is obviously an additional expense, and vaccination requires an initial injection followed by a 6 month booster shot. Even then, each vaccination only covers a specific strain of the disease, and there are several different known strains of foot and mouth disease.
In addition, many countries such as the United States will not allow meat imports from countries unless they are certified as being free of foot and mouth disease free. Vaccination would permanently grind to a halt almost all British meat exports. Such bans are in place because of another problem with vacciantion — animals that have received the vaccine can nonetheless still carry the disease, without showing any symptoms, and pass it on to non-infected animals.
For these reasons, vaccination for the disease occurs largely in the developing world where the disease is often endemic. In many parts of Africa and Latin America, for example, foot and mouth disease is common and vaccination is widespread (largely because even though eradicating the disease would produce benefits, most developing countries can’t afford the initial investment costs of doing so).
Add to that the current near-hysteria among some Europeans over vaccination in general, and widespread vaccination just isn’t a very appealing option.
The second question is obviously extremely speculative — what caused the outbreak? There has been some speculation in the media that animal rights activists may have intentionally started the outbreak. Such speculation has been fueled by comments from animal rights activists, such as Ingrid Newkirk telling reporters that she hoped an outbreak of the disease hit the United States. On top of that, a vial of the disease was recently reported missing from the inventory of a research laboratory in the UK.
Still, I think it is extremely unlikely that animal rights activists are responsible for the outbreak. If they had, I doubt they would have kept it a secret. We’d be flooded with communiques (in fact, after Newkirk’s statements, I half expected the Animal Liberation Front or some other group to claim responsibility for the outbreak).
More importantly, though, Great Britain has had foot and mouth epidemics before — the last major one being in the 1960s — so outbreaks are hardly unknown, Europe in general has seen several outbreaks since the 1990s, and there are many ways in which the disease could have made it to the UK. At the moment positing intervention by animal rights activists seems to add a completely unnecessary level of complication.
The current leading hypothesis, for example, is that somebody illegally smuggled meat that was infected with the disease into the UK and then fed it to pigs. Apparently there has been a longstanding practice of airlines selling waste food, including meat, to pork producers who in turn feed it to pigs. The only problem is that some of the meat used in the meals probably comes from parts of the world that are not free of foot and mouth disease. This practice is banned in the UK, but apparently a number of suppliers were flouting the law. The current candidate for the originating site of the current epidemic turns out to be a pig farm.
Scientists back rapid slaughter policy. The BBC, April 13, 2001.
Why not vaccinate?. The BBC, April 19, 2001.
Experts assess foot-and-mouth impact. Christine McGourty, The BBC, April 18, 2001.