LONDON — In a new blow to Britain's struggling farmers, the government banned all exports of live animals, fresh meat and milk Wednesday amid the first outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the country in 20 years.
Agriculture officials moved quickly to contain the crisis, sealing off the slaughterhouse where the disease was discovered in 27 pigs, as well as isolating two farms that had delivered animals there. Another farm was under investigation.
The European Union announced a weeklong import ban while British experts try to determine the scope of the problem. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also said that British pork products shipped to the United States and not yet distributed were being quarantined at U.S. ports and that there would be no further imports for the time being.
"We are faced with what is potentially a very serious situation," British Agriculture Minister Nick Brown said. "We believe far and away the best chance of getting on top of this is to act swiftly and firmly, and that is exactly what we are doing."
Although the virus does not normally endanger human beings, its outbreak is sure to fuel the country's food fears stemming from a decade-long battle with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, commonly known as "mad cow" disease. The spread of that disease from cattle to humans--despite government assurances that it would not jump species--has prompted skeptical Britons to back away from eating meat and to reject the farming of genetically modified crops.
Several European countries have blamed Britain for the spread of BSE to their farms.
The outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease is a huge setback for pig farmers, who have been reeling from three years of low prices, an outbreak of swine fever last year and floods this winter. They also are struggling with a strong pound, which makes British exports more expensive in Europe and the United States.
National Farmers' Union President Ben Gill called the ban a "devastating but necessary evil" to control the fast-moving disease.
"This ban will be devastating for us," he said. "It is like staring into the abyss. On top of all the problems we have had to surmount in the last few years, the impact is unthinkable.
"But it is in the interest of the whole of the British livestock industry that the spread of this disease is halted, and there is simply no alternative."
Farmers hope the outbreak will be contained quickly, before it spreads to other farms and other cloven-footed animals such as sheep, goats and cattle. But some farmers expressed concern because the slaughterhouse in Essex in southern England where the disease was discovered serves farms nationwide, from Scotland in the north to the Isle of Wight in the south.
The total value of British beef, lamb and pork exports last year, including live animals and meat, was nearly $870 million. Gill said the financial impact of the ban will depend on how long it lasts.
During the last outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, in 1981, more than 442,000 animals were slaughtered and the loss to farmers was estimated at $265 million.
This outbreak was discovered during a routine inspection of a slaughterhouse near Brentwood, Essex, on Tuesday. Veterinarians saw "highly suspicious" symptoms of foot-and-mouth disease that were soon confirmed, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The symptoms are blisters in the mouth and on the feet that result in excessive salivation and lameness.
Officials cordoned off the slaughterhouse with yellow tape marked "No Entry," shutting down a business that produced 500 tons of meat a week. They began visiting nearby farms and set up an exclusion zone around two feeder farms, although there was no confirmation of an outbreak of the disease at either one.
The strain of the virus has not been positively identified, but it is believed to belong to the pan-Asiatic group that has caused outbreaks in Japan, South Korea, Mongolia and Russia. The incubation period is three to 14 days, which means Britain should have a fairly clear idea of the extent of the outbreak within two weeks.