More cattle culled in UK foot and mouth outbreak

Britain's chief veterinary officer has said the threat of the current outbreak of foot and mouth disease spreading beyond Surrey is minimal.

The statement however comes despite confirmation that cattle at a third farm in the area had been suspected of infection and culled.

Debby Reynolds the chief veterinary officer, was announcing the lifting of some restrictions on animal movement, saying the collection of dead animals and the movement of animals to slaughterhouses would be permitted under licence from midnight.

The latest suspected outbreak was on a farm next to the site of the second suspected case of the disease, and once again close to the Pirbright laboratories, where foot and mouth vaccines are being developed.

Wales and Scotland have also announced a similar relaxation of restrictions on animal movements.

Only farms, transport companies and abattoirs that met "stringent" biosecurity measures are permitted to move or accept livestock for slaughter.

The National Farmers' Union has welcomed the announcement saying it is the first step to getting the industry back to normal and maintaining supplies of home-produced meat to consumers.

The union says livestock farmers must however remain vigilant, check their stock regularly and report anything suspicious immediately.

A European Commission ban on meat exports from the UK remains in place.

The privately run laboratory at the centre of the investigation Merial Animal Health, continues to insist there has been no breach in its biosecurity.

A report by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says there was a "strong probability" that its Pirbright lab, or the Institute for Animal Health on the same site, was the source of the outbreak.

Merial's own investigation has apparently found no evidence that the virus had spread from its centre via humans and says it has complete confidence in its health and safety procedures.

Both laboratories, which develop vaccines against foot-and-mouth, handle the exact, rare strain of the virus, isolated by British scientists 40 years ago, that struck the herd.

Merial was producing larger quantities for vaccines while the IAH was using small amounts for research.

Merial has also rejected suggestions that wastewater it released into the environment might have been a possible cause of the outbreak.

The company says it does not release water from the site and the water used in virus production is treated and then transferred to the IAH site who treat it further and then release it.

Merial are continuing to cooperate with the HSE investigation into the outbreak while the environment secretary, has conceded that there is concern over the possibility that the outbreak was the result of sabotage.

The HSE report has ruled out the airborne transmission of the virus and also suggests that the risk of waterborne transmission alone was negligible.

But the flooding theory has not been totally dismissed; if surface water on the Pirbright site became contaminated, someone moving from the facility to surrounding land could have carried the virus on his or her footwear.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has said it is investigating unconfirmed reports that a worker at one of the Pirbright labs has an allotment near the farm where the outbreak was first detected.

Merial has voluntarily halted commercial production at the Pirbright site, but is producing 300,000 doses of foot and mouth vaccine for the government.

Experts say this poses no risk because the vaccine does not involve the use of a live virus.

Britain's livestock industry has annual meat exports worth more than $1 billion, and there are fears of a repeat of a foot-and-mouth crisis in 2001 that devastated farming and cost the country about 8.5 billion pounds ($17 billion).

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