Swine Vesicular Disease

Petition – in the House of Commons at 10:57 am on 22 May 1981.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Sir Timothy Kitson Sir Timothy Kitson , Richmond (Yorks) 10:57, 22 May 1981

I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise the problem of swine vesicular disease, with special reference to a serious outbreak that occurred in my constituency last yeear.

In 1979 there were 43 outbreaks of swine vesicular disease in the United Kingdom. In 1980 there were 60 outbreaks, but there were only seven up to May this year. That demonstrates that there has been a considerable reduction in the number of confirmed cases in recent months.

As the House probably knows, when there is an outbreak of swine vesicular disease a compulsory slaughter policy is carried out by the Ministry. An intensive disinfection programme is carried out on the farm or property concerned, involving the cleaning up of all the buildings, yards, road vehicles, tractors and trailers—in fact, pretty well everything on the property.

In December 1980 Ministry vets from the Northallerton office confirmed an outbreak of swine vesicular disease. Prior to the confirmation an order was placed on the premises, Beck Hill Farm Ltd., preventing the movement of pigs for seven days. During that time blood tests were taken. They proved positive, and the Ministry appointed a valuer. Between 11 and 16 December, 4,776 pigs were slaughtered. The carcases were removed by road vehicles, and compensation of £271,884 was agreed and paid. I regret to say that today, in one of the northern newspapers, it is suggested that there was delay in the payment. I know that that is not correct.

Beck Hill Farm is a substantial, efficiently run pig unit, turning over about 15,000 pigs for slaughter annually. All the pigs are brought in and fattened, and there can be little doubt that the disease was brought on to the farm, possibly on a contaminated lorry or through contaminated food. Just prior to the outbreak there was a confirmed case in South Yorkshire, at Doncaster.

In close proximity to the farm there are other substantial pig enterprises, and those concerned were obviously concerned and worried about the possibility of cross-infection and the chance of substantial losses to those neighbours. Most of the neighbours, unlike Beck Hill Farm, have rearing units. It is well known that if breeding units are lost, the position is very much more serious than where they are lost on a farm on which the animals are merely being fattened. Fortunately, I can report that up till now there has been no further outbreak in the immediate area.

For some years the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has used Wimpeys as the contractual firm to move in and assist in the cleaning-up process following an outbreak of swine vesicular disease, and that was the pattern of events at Beck Hill Farm. Compensation for the slaughter of the pigs was agreed and paid speedily, as I have already mentioned, but the assessment and payment of compensation for ancillary materials on the farm, such as waste food, potatoes, hay and straw, was considerably delayed.

There had also been a continuing problem over what to do with the slurry on the farm. The Ministry informed me that one of the two lagoons contained 1,400,000 gallons of slurry. Understandably, the neighbours were not enthusiastic about having that slurry put on to the fields adjoining them.

I was asked by the National Farmers Union to raise certain points arising from the case that give justifiable concern to pig producers in the neighbourhood. It appears that there might be a lack of common procedure for the removal of slurry and waste products from a farm once the disease has been confirmed. In view of the disease risk associated with these substances it is essential that priority should be given to their disposal, in order to safeguard not only the farmer in question, but those surrounding him who may have livestock. The Ministry could well look again at the procedures and activities to be undertaken in the event of these problems arising.

There is a feeling that in clearing out and cleansing infected buildings there should be close liaison with and supervision of contracted labour by Ministry veterinary staff, to ensure that matters are dealt with properly and that the risks of subsequent disease spread are kept to a minimum. There is no doubt in my mind that the Ministry's policy of attempting to eradicate the disease by means of slaughter and compensation is having considerable success, and no one would wish to alter that policy.

I wrote to the Minister of Agriculture on 19 March, expressing some of these worries. He replied to me promptly in the first week of April. He pointed out that there was difficulty with the owner in the production of invoices concerning contaminated feeding stuff, and that there were also difficulties in trying to reach a satisfactory conclusion on these values. Therefore, an outsider valuer had to be brought in to assist.

While the negotiations were going on there was a large amount of waste food on premises, which attracted a great many birds. This aroused fears that the birds would transfer the disease to neighbouring farms. When the Ministry veterinary staff were investigating suspected swine vesicular disease on the farm they did not stop milk vans, post vans and other delivery vehicles calling at Beck Hill and then going on to all the neighbouring farms, or warn of the risk involved in allowing that procedure to continue.

At the time of the slaughtering of the 4,700 pigs, 17 carcase loads were taken off the farm and driven to the Midlands. As the drivers of those vehicles were changed regularly, there was not satisfactory supervision on a number of occasions. Lorries left the farm, turned in the wrong direction and then had to turn round in the neighbouring farms, which had large pig units, before going down the road in the right direction. That created a great deal of concern.

At Beck Hill farm there are two large slurry lagoons. Although an attempt was made to remove a considerable amount of the slurry, and also to spray the lagoons to ensure that there was no further risk of cross-infection, the usual practice—which is to remove the slurry by tanker and dispose of it in an approved waste tip—was not undertaken in this instance. I suppose that it can be argued by the Ministry, with some justification, that with such enormous quantities of slurry it would have been almost impossible to cope with in that way. It would be helpful if the Minister would take a general look at the procedure for handling slurry, to ensure that the success nationally of SVD eradication is continued and that what is acceptable in one area is maintained and operated in others. The Ministry has taken from 16 December 1980 to 15 April 1981 to carry out its full cleaning-up operations at Beck Hill Farm.

I wrote to the British Veterinary Association—my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) was involved in the matter at one of our agricultural committee meetings last week—about the problems that we had encountered in this case. The BVA replied that there were certain procedures that usually took place after an outbreak, and suggested that the period of cleaning up and restocking was about 12 to 16 weeks. That appeared to be the Ministry's general procedure, but, as can be seen from the facts that I have outlined, in this case we were in no way on line for that sort of programme.

In the same week that Beck Hill farm had a confirmed outbreak, there was an outbreak at Stranraer, where about 8,000 pigs had to be slaughtered on Mr. Robinson's property. It is interesting to note that on that occasion cleaning up and disinfecting procedures were carried out by Mr. Robinson's own staff, under the supervision of Ministry of Agriculture veterinary officers. It is also interesting to note that, although the outbreak on Mr. Robinson's farm was only a week before the one in North Yorkshire, he was in a position to start restocking on 15 April this year, and already has over 2,000 pigs back on his property.

I cannot stress too strongly to my hon. Friend how important it is to have the operation carried through speedily, so that restocking can begin. I do not feel that the delays in this case can be justified, although I know that there have been certain other difficulties concerning valuation and matters of that kind. However, I have to point out that, sadly as a result of this delay, at Beck Hill farm a number of staff have had to be made redundant because there is no work for them to carry out. Where a farmer is allowed to do his own clearing up under Ministry supervision, that problem does not appear to arise.

As I said before, at Beck Hill farm the premises were disinfected, as well as all buildings, yards and vehicles. It was then decided by the Ministry to pressure-wash the insulated ceilings of each piggery. A great amount of water pressure was applied in this operation, and, as a consequence the tinfoil insulation on the ceilings was stripped off them. This damaged the ceilings so greatly that now they all need removing, and new material will have to be affixed. The damaged insulation ceilings are now quite worthless in monetary value and also in their vapour barrier, heat and fire-resisting properties.

In addition, in many places the floor tiles have been stripped off by the water pressure. I saw this for myself last Saturday morning. Literally thousands of tiles have been removed. When Wimpeys were cleaning up, the water pressures used by the firm's representatives probably were far greater than necessary. It is extremely difficult to lift tiles off floors and remove ceilings altogether unless far too many pounds of water pressure are used in the cleaning-up process.

The electrical system should have been tested and disconnected, with all the apparatus being protected with polythene and tape, before any washing down took place. Because those procedures were not followed a small electrical fire occurred, and the district veterinary officer stopped the North-Eastern electricity board and a private contractor carrying out tests on the apparatus when it was discovered that it would take seven days, at a cost of £1,400, to renew the installation. The electricity board was then instructed to disconnect the buildings at the mains. This was done in February 1981. It is fortunate that no employee, or anyone else for that matter, was killed by the electrical "shorts". The operation of water on live apparatus must contravene regulations under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act.

I believe that there should be a set pattern of rules when dealing with a situation of this kind. It is most important that in an outbreak of disease, with all the resulting problems, someone grasps the nettle. It is now four weeks since the disinfection operations were completed, and I was given to understand last Saturday that the answer to the question of who pays for the damage to the electrical wiring, ceilings, floors, the replacement of troughs and many smaller items is not clear in the mind of the owner of the property or in the mind of the National Farmers Union.

One might well ask how a pig producer in Scotland, with about 8,000 pigs on his premises and whose outbreak of SVD is confirmed in the same week, can carry out his own cleaning and disinfection work and be back in business by April 1981. Mr. Atkinson is convinced that he and his staff could have cleaned up his farm in half the time and at about half the cost to the Exchequer incurred by using contracted labour.

We now have the problem of replacing damaged ceilings and floors. A great deal of electrical installation will have to be done. The figure for this work will be about £30,000 or £40,000, which is not an inconsiderable sum. In no way can the liability be placed upon the shoulders of the farmer.

These situations are always difficult. However, with clearer guidelines, faster decision-taking and the minimum amount of delay, both the person involved and neighbouring farmers will benefit. I hope that the Ministry will consider what can be done to improve the overall procedures.

Photo of Mr Peter Mills Mr Peter Mills , Devon West 11:15, 22 May 1981

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Sir. T. Kitson) for allowing me to say a few words in this Adjournment debate.

My hon. Friend raised this problem in one of our agricultural committees, of which I have the privilege to be chairman, and I believe that he was right to do so, just as he is right to bring to the attention of the House and the Minister the problems which he has just described. However, I wish to highlight the growing problem in agriculture of these large units, and not just to discuss the problems arising from outbreaks of swine vesicular disease.

We know that, in the world in which we live we have to have these large units in order to achieve the output and the efficiency that we require. A unit of this kind is a far cry from the old days when a farmer with two or three sows and perhaps a dozen weaners or fatteners had a useful unit, when a farmer kept 10 cows and found them a large number to milk in a day, or perhaps had a small flock of sheep. Today, those numbers have to be compared with thousands of pigs or, for that matter, large dairy units of 200 cows and large flocks of sheep.

These large units present real problems, and we in the South-West of England, let alone farmers in Yorkshire and Scotland, are concerned about the effects of disease on large units. The bigger the herd, flock or pig unit, the greater the danger and, therefore, the greater the care that is needed.

The threat of disease grows. The problem of SVD is not so serious, because the slaughter policy is working and is right. However, we have had problems in the South-West with sheep scab. In fact, we are rather ashamed about what has happened in the South-West. Now, the Minister has rightly taken action to deal with sheep scab, but there is no doubt that large flocks have contributed to its spread. We have also experienced the dangers of contagious abortion and outbreaks of TB and foot-and-mouth, to say nothing of problems in poultry units, all of which, because large units are involved, present real problems. The danger is present all the time. Given these large units, the Ministry has to watch them carefully and the problems to which they give rise. Disease can spread like wildfire and it is important to have up-to-date procedures and regulations to deal with it.

As I have said, I agree wholeheartedly with the slaughter policy in respect of SVD. It is right. It is the cheapest solution in the long run. We have seen such a policy work successfully with the recent outbreak of foot-and-mouth, and I congratulate the Minister and his staff on the speedy way in which they dealt with that appalling danger.

However, I support my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks when he suggests that we need firmer guidelines to deal with cleaning up operations after an outbreak of disease, especially of SVD.

In the case to which my hon. Friend referred, it took far too long to get the premises cleaned up and sterilised. I wonder why the work was put out to contract and why the farmer was not allowed to do it himself. In my view, any attempt to do such work privately should be encouraged. The farmer should do it himself, of course, under firm Ministry guidance, because its vets cart guide a farmer firmly, and I believe that that is the right way to proceed.

From the farmer's point of view, the sooner the cleaning operations are completed, the sooner he is back in business the sooner his neighbours can sleep at nights without the fear of the disease spreading to their farms. to say nothing of the dangers to other farmers further afield.

In supporting my hon. Friend in this matter, I hope that we shall have firmer guidelines on these matters and greater encouragement for the farmer to get on with the job quickly with his own staff. It is to his advantage and everyone's advantage.

I ask the Minister two questions. First, what happened to the pigs that went off in the lorries? Were they burnt, dumped, buried, or—an even more frightening possibility did they find their way on to the market?

I hope that I am not putting the Minister in an embarrassing position, but I must warn him, as I have recently warned the House and the public, that there is a growing number of cowboy operators who will use knackered, condemned meat for sale in shops. It is important that we know exactly what happened to these pigs. Did they find their way into pig hamburgers? I do not know whether there are such things. That is the way in which some of the knackered beef has gone. Did they find their way into dog food? That is another dangerous outlet.

This matter is not to be taken lightly. A growing number of fiddles are taking place. We want to be certain that all animals that are slaughtered because of disease or a slaughter policy are burnt and done away with and do not find their way on to the market in any form.

Secondly, over this whole area, and particularly SVD, what arrangements do we have with the rest of Europe? Is there any harmonisation on these matters? We do not see much harmonisation in Europe and the Community as regards foot and mouth disease and a slaughter policy, and so on. As for SVD, I am wondering whether our Ministry vets are discussing with vets in Europe and the Community a harmonisation procedure on these matters.

Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks, on bringing this matter to the attention of the House. I hope that the Minister, without too much trouble, will be able to answer my questions.

Photo of Mr Jerry Wiggin Mr Jerry Wiggin , Weston-Super-Mare 11:22, 22 May 1981

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Sir T. Kitson) on selecting this subject for an Adjournment debate. I should also like to express my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) for his more general comments on animal health and large flocks. I shall deal with his very fair point about the size of flocks and herds of pigs and other animals. Disease is a great enemy. Obviously, when one has very much larger units, all the problems of hygiene, disinfection and so on are magnified. It may seem obvious, but it is true, and my hon. Friend was perfectly right to raise the point.

As I understand it, in Europe the responsibility for animal health matters remains within each country. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend's experience will confirm that the veterinary officers of various Governments all over the world enjoy a remarkable degree of mutual co-operation. They talk about these matters continually, not just about swine vesicular disease, but about all aspects of animal disease. Where I have come across any international problem—such as contagious botritis in horses, or a foot and mouth outbreak, with the effect that that has on dairy products—I have found that those concerned operate extremely quickly and extremely well. That does not mean that there is not further progress to be made, but the present position is fairly satisfactory.

Perhaps it would be sensible if I were to explain, briefly, the procedures used in the eradication and elimination of SVD, and the background to the disease. SVD is caused by a virus which produces in pigs clinical symptoms which are indistinguishable from foot and mouth disease. Laboratory tests are necessary to determine which virus is present in suspect pigs. The SVD virus is more persistent and more difficult to kill than the foot and mouth virus. If left to run its course, SVD is likely to produce a loss of condition in pigs, but its main importance lies in its clinical confusion with foot and mouth disease. If it were not tackled by a slaughter policy it would become widespread and would seriously disrupt the movement of pigs to markets and abattoirs, as on each occasion when disease was suspected in pigs a full foot and mouth disease standstill would have to operate while a differential laboratory diagnosis was being made.

Since 1972, when the first outbreak of SVD occurred in Great Britain, about 500 outbreaks have been confirmed. Compensation has cost about £11 million, to which must be added about £4 million on expenditure arising for cleansing, disinfection and other costs. In 1980, 60 outbreaks of the disease were confirmed, with the resulting slaughter of nearly 50,000 pigs at a cost in compensation of about £2·7 million. With a few exceptions, the disease has been confined since January 1976 to the Yorkshire, Lancashire and Humberside areas.

Swill feeding of pigs gives rise to greater risks of swine vesicular disease than other methods, notwithstanding that swill—fed pigs may be moved only direct to slaughterhouses. Control measures operating under the Diseases of Animals (Waste Food) Order 1973 have already been tightened up and arrangements are in hand to improve the controls still further.

Other measures which are being taken with the aim of eradicating SVD include blood sampling at slaughterhouses of swill-fed pigs originating in those areas where we consider that there is the greatest possibility of finding infection. This includes some areas of Yorkshire, although my hon. Friend's constituency is not in one of these areas.

These measures have been shown to be worthwhile by the fact that six of the seven outbreaks this year were found as a result of such sampling. The blood sampling has recently been extended to pigs from the premises of sow feeders and dealers in the whole of Yorkshire and adjacent countries whose premises appear to have been a source of continuing infection. The State veterinary service is also undertaking intensive tracing in those markets which have been associated with the disease.

I hope that this brief summary will have served to indicate to the House the seriousness with which the Government regard SVD. As the past history shows, it is very difficult to eradicate. But the Government are determined to continue to work towards this objective. The results of the monitoring which has been undertaken in the Yorkshire-Lancashire area, where the disease is centred, and the recent diminution in the number of outbreaks, suggest that progress is being made in its containment and that, to use veterinary terminology, we are getting ahead of the disease.

As I have indicated, swill feeding of pigs gives rise to greater risks of SVD than other methods, notwithstanding that such animals may only be sent for slaughter. We have taken steps to tighten up the controls set out in existing legislation and have it in mind to improve the arrangements even further after consultation with the interests concerned.

I know that action taken to control and eradicate notifiable diseases causes great disruption to producers and others. SVD probably is among the worst in this respect because of the persistence of the virus and the need to take the most stringent disinfection measures. It will provide the House with a measure of the precautions which have to be taken when I say that it is usually three months before any restocking can safely take place after an outbreak of the disease.

In trying to eradicate SVD, it is almost inevitable that local problems of the sort described by my hon. Friend will arise. Under our procedures the first objective after destroying infected pigs on a holding is to pay compensation for them on the fifteenth day after confirmation of the outbreak. Fourteen days must elapse to give a farmer time to appeal against the valuation of his pigs. My hon. Friend rightly said that there was no complaint about the payment of compensation, which was dealt with promptly in the case to which he referred.

Subsequently, an assessment is made of the risks arising from feeding stuffs and other materials on the holding. Where those must be destroyed that can usually be undertaken expeditiously, but on occasions differences of view or difficulties about valuation occur. In those circumstances, a certain time can elapse before the problem is solved. While we have tremendous sympathy for any fanner whose animals must be destroyed, in practical terms we have to temper that by safeguarding claims on public expenditure.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West asked what happened to pigs removed from farms after slaughter. They are processed by a safe rendering method. It is approved and supervised by my Department. I am not an authority, but I imagine that it has something to do with the temperature at which the viruses can be destroyed.

Photo of Mr Peter Mills Mr Peter Mills , Devon West

What is meant by "rendering"? What is it used for?

Photo of Mr Jerry Wiggin Mr Jerry Wiggin , Weston-Super-Mare

I am sorry to tell my hon. Friend that I am not an expert on the disposal of pigs that have been slaughtered after an SVD outbreak. It is important that they are disposed of in a safe manner, that the virus cannot be transmitted and that public funds are protected if there is any value in the residual carcases. I can arrange for my hon. Friend to investigate one of the premises, if he so wishes, next time an outbreak occurs.

I come now to the detailed points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks on behalf of his constituent. I am afraid that it is almost inevitable that damage will occur to property. My hon. Friend mentioned ceilings, tiles and electrical installations. The process of disinfection uses large quantities of water and the pressures must be high if the water is to get into all the crevices, cracks, roofs and fittings. In those circumstances it is normal practice for the Ministry to accept liability for the damage arising and for it to pay the cost of repairs. In Mr Atkinson's case the Ministry's local surveyor has been responsible for determining the matter in the usual way. I understand that a conclusion based upon his report will be reached shortly. The issue has taken longer to resolve than usual for the reasons that I have already described, coupled with a disagreement about slurry removal.

In Mr Atkinson's case there were two lagoons holding 1·4 million gallons each of slurry. There can be good veterinary reasons why even potentially infected slurry is better left where it lies, because the virus will eventually destroy itself. In all these matters there must be an individual judgment. The veterinary officer on the spot is responsible for what takes place. The House will accept that it is a matter of considerable pride that there was no spread of disease from that farm, despite the concern expressed by my hon. Friend.

Photo of Sir Timothy Kitson Sir Timothy Kitson , Richmond (Yorks)

If a movement order is placed on another case, will my hon. Friend consider the question of vehicles going on to the farm, such as post vans and those delivering food? I think that if there were a foot and mouth outbreak vehicles would not be allowed to do that. That procedure needs consideration.

Photo of Mr Jerry Wiggin Mr Jerry Wiggin , Weston-Super-Mare

I understand what my hon. Friend is saying. I was closely acquainted with the last serious outbreak of foot and mouth, which happened near land that I farmed. It is the responsibility of the veterinarian on the spot to decide on the level of precautions to be taken. However, I am sure that in the process of tightening SVD precautions the vets will bear in mind what my hon. Friend has said.

The risk of spreading the virus to neighbouring fauns through contaminated feeding stuffs or undisturbed slurry is considered to be minimal. We must take the professional advice that is available. We believe that the underlying policy and the action taken are uniformly applied. We do everything possible to minimise the risk of further contamination. As both my hon. Friends, with their agricultural experience, will know, whenever such an outbreak occurs there is a natural fear and people seek to pick up the smallest of points if they believe that there is danger to their stocks.

A comparison has been made with the speed of settlement in another outbreak. I hope that my hon. Friend will appreciate that the time taken to settle such detailed and complex issues depends essentially upon local factors. It is not possible to compare the time taken in one case with another. We are dealing with people and with human judgment. Inevitably, there will be differences between one case and another.

I hope that what I have said will have made it clear to the House that the Government will continue to regard swine vesicular disease as serious. We continue to be fully committed to the objective of trying to rid the country of that scourge, notwithstanding the difficulties. We welcome the full support received from the whole of the agricultural industry to that end.