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The ministry and the malady: Paul Brassley puts MAFF's policy towards foot and mouth disease into historical perspective. (Cross Current).

WHO WAS THE LAST minister in the Cabinet? It is bound to be a quiz question sooner or later, and the answer will be Nick Brown. The explanation, of course, is that heads of government departments serving in the cabinet are usually secretaries of state, and only their juniors are called ministers. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), which disappeared after the election in June 2001, was in fact the only remaining department of state with a minister in charge, and its replacement, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (to be known for short as DEFRA), is headed by a Secretary of State like all the other departments.

We shall presumably have to wait thirty years for the release of the necessary official papers before we really know whether Foot and Mouth Disease was as fatal to MAFF as it was to millions of animals. Food scares and attitudes to the environment have also been suggested as reasons for its demise. But if it was, there would be a certain neat circularity in the whole story, for animal disease was one of the reasons for the foundation of MAFF's predecessor, and the ministry was closely connected with the emergence of a slaughter policy for Foot and Mouthand other animal diseases.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was established by an Order in Council in April 1955 which brought together the Ministry of Food, established in 1939 to ensure the adequate nutrition of the country in wartime, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. In the light of recent comments on MAFF, it is interesting to note that Clement Attlee, Leader of the Opposition at the time, claimed that it was an `amalgamation rather like that of the young lady and the tiger', and The Times agreed with him that it was `asking too much of any Minister to hold the balance fairly between the interests of the consumer and the powerful agricultural interest'.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries was established by an Act in 1919, and took over the powers of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries. A Board of Agriculture had first been established in 1793, with Sir John Sinclair as President and the well-known agricultural journalist Arthur Young as Secretary, but it was dissolved in 1822. Then in 1866 the Cattle Diseases Prevention Act was passed to combat the outbreak of cattle plague or rinderpest which was then sweeping through the country, and the Cattle Plague Department was set up in the Home Office to administer it. This became the Veterinary Department of the Privy Council the following year, and in 1883, when it acquired responsibility for the publication of the annual agricultural statistics from the Board of Trade, it became the Agriculture Department of the Privy Council. Finally, in 1889, the Land Commissioners (responsible to the Home Office for enclosure, copyhold and tithes) were combined with the Agriculture Department to form a new Board of Agriculture, with a Veterinary Department as one of its constituent parts.

If in the second half of the twentieth century MAFF was seen as the farmers' voice in government, it was not necessarily so in the late nineteenth century. The Board of Agriculture had legal, statistical and veterinary responsibilities, but there were none of the specific farm income support measures that came later. Arable farming in particular existed in a free market: cheap grain from overseas competed successfully in British markets, grain prices fell, farmers complained, workers left the land -- and government felt no need to intervene. Indeed in 1902 Sir Thomas Elliott, Permanent Secretary to the Board of Agriculture, told Sir Daniel Hall, a prominent agricultural scientist who was trying to raise funds for research, that British agriculture was dead and the Board's business was to bury it decently. The main exception to this policy trend was in veterinary legislation, which John Fisher, the historian who has investigated the topic in more detail than anyone else, describes as the one major political achievement of the British agricultural interest in the late nineteenth century. It was a political achievement because, in an era of free trade, it worked in part by preventing livestock imports.

The development of nineteenth-century disease control legislation began with the outbreak of cattle plague mentioned above. In May 1865 a cargo of cattle from the Baltic port of Reval was landed at Hull. Some of the animals went to stock one of the town dairies in London, where they fell sick with what was eventually diagnosed as rinderpest or cattle plague. That summer it spread rapidly throughout the country. Scientists disagreed about what it was and how best to treat it. In September a `Form of Prayer' against the plague was promulgated for use in churches, and in Lincolnshire a farmer slaughtered a calf and buried it, feet upwards, at the threshold of the cowshed. It was soon said that there was not a cowshed in the Lincolnshire marshlands that did not have a wicker cross above its door. The plague continued unabated, and in January 1866 the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested a Day of National Humiliation. The government preferred an alternative approach: in February 1866 the Cattle Diseases Prevention Act was rushed through parliament, providing for local authority inspectors to order the slaughter of animals believed to be infected, and of those beasts in contact with them, with compensation to be paid to the owners. At the same time cattle movements and imports were restricted. Within a month the number of new cases reported had fallen by a half, and by September 1867 the country was officially declared free of the disease.

The principles of notifiability (i.e. the responsibility of the owner to notify the authorities if livestock appear to be suffering from one of a number of specified diseases), together with slaughter, compensation, and movement and import restrictions, which today form the basis of animal epidemic disease control, and the idea of a government department with responsibility for these measures, therefore derive to a remarkable extent from the attitudes and legislation emerging from the successful containment of cattle plague in 1866. The Act of that year was followed by a series of Contagious Diseases (Animals) Acts between 1869 and 1893, all of which were eventually subsumed into the Diseases of Animals Act of 1894.

Both the medical and veterinary professions agreed that disease spread as a result of contagion or germs, yet their attitudes and their solution to such problems, from the late nineteenth century onwards, differed markedly. Human medicine, diagnosing that germs were attacking the body, treated the individual affected. Veterinary medicine, on the other hand, saw the importation of diseased animals attacking the livestock economy and so treated the national herd by legislative approaches such as slaughter and compensation. Thus the medical profession was legitimised by association with science, and its heroes were those who discovered pathogens, while the veterinary profession was legitimised by its association with the state and its heroes were the Acts, Orders and Regulations with which the state tackled animal epidemics. It is hardly necessary to point out the relevance of this distinction to the debates of the recent Foot and Mouth Disease epidemic.

The range of diseases dealt with by the various Acts of the late nineteenth century gradually expanded to include swine fever, glanders, rabies, anthrax, and sheep scab. Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) was one of the first to become notifiable, under the provisions of the 1869 Act. In fact it was first recorded in 1839, although, since a medieval glossary (based on Essex records) mentions a condition called `mal de lange', and there were fairly regular outbreaks up to 1869, it probably existed, at least sporadically, long before this first record. Its incorporation into the 1869 Act means that statistics on the number of cases of FMD in Britain are available from 1870 onwards. In that first year there were over 27,000 `outbreaks' (which apparently means infected farms), with a further 52,164 the following year. In 1883 there were nearly 19,000 outbreaks, with every county in the country being affected. At this time animals with FMD were not necessarily slaughtered (older farmers remember stories of animals recovering from it, and even doing well), but from 1892, after there had been no outbreaks for five years, a slaughter policy was introduced, and there were on average fewer than ten outbreaks per year between then and the First World War. In 1922, however, an epidemic of over a thousand outbreaks led to the slaughter of nearly 55,000 animals and a compensation bill of nearly 800,000 [pounds sterling]; and between 1929 and 1953 there were on average 129 outbreaks, with over 15,000 animals slaughtered, every year.

If these figures seem high, they are put into perspective by data from continental European countries, most of which did not have a slaughter policy. In Germany, for example, there were never fewer than 5,000 animals infected in each of the years between 1886 and 1905, and in 1892 and 1899 the figures rose to 1.5 million and 1.9 million respectively. A further wave of infection, said to have been introduced, like many others, from the east, passed over central Europe in 1910 and 1911, affecting 37,000 herds in the German Empire and 111,382 herds in Austria, with many more in Croatia, Slavonia (now part of northern Croatia), Hungary, Denmark, Italy, France, Belgium and Holland. Another great epidemic between 1937 and 1940 affected France, Germany and Holland, although the UK escaped until 1941 and 1942.

The Board of Agriculture (and subsequently the Ministry) was closely involved in the question of why the major epidemics occurred and what could be done about them, most visibly through the establishment of Departmental committees of enquiry after each of the major epidemics in the twentieth century (with the exception of that in 1941-42, when presumably minds were concentrated elsewhere). The first of these was chaired by Sir Ailwyn Fellowes, and reported in 1912. It described the disease, admitting that not enough was known about it and calling for more research. Much of the detailed description of FMD was contained in a paper by Professor Bang of Denmark which described the state of the disease in continental Europe (from which many of the statistics in the previous paragraph are drawn). The importation of the disease into Britain was blamed on imports of hay, straw, milk, carcasses, offals, and people and their clothing. Consequently one of the suggested remedies was the control of imports, although the committee recognised that such a move could affect the British shipping industry, `which carries 70 per cent of the world's sea-borne traffic'. The slaughter policy, originally aimed at cattle plague and subsequently extended to FMD, was also examined. Was an alternative vaccination policy possible or desirable? The Fellowes Committee concluded that infected animals should still be slaughtered, but the Board should consider `inoculation' for surrounding farms.

The Fellowes Committee set the agenda for subsequent enquiries to a degree that is perhaps remarkable. To a greater or lesser extent they all blamed imports of infected animal products of one kind or another, they all examined the possibility of vaccination, and they all confirmed the necessity of import controls and slaughter. They did, however, vary in some details. The Pretyman Committee, for example, which reported only ten years after Fellowes, found that some vets were in favour of slaughtered animals entering the food chain as long as their heads, hoofs and hides were removed. The departmental committee which sat in 1952-4 under the chairmanship of Sir Ernest Gowers (perhaps better known as the author of Plain Words) examined vaccination in great detail, visiting numerous countries where vaccination or slaughter, or combinations of the two, were used, and concluding that it might be useful in `severe' epidemics. Contingency plans for ring vaccination (in the vicinity of an outbreak) were also recommended by the Northumberland Committee, which reported in 1969.

Faced with a further epidemic in early 2001, therefore, MAFF officials might well have been tempted to think that, unlike BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) which caused them so many problems in the 1990s, FMD was a disease of which they had great experience and some considerable knowledge. And an examination of previous epidemics and the reaction to them supports this view, insofar as many of the questions about causes and control measures raised in the present epidemic have been dealt with before, and in great detail. So are there any differences between the present and previous epidemics?

The most obvious change is in the number of animals slaughtered compared with the number of confirmed cases. Back in 1892 the number of animals slaughtered was less than the number of confirmed cases. In the 1922 epidemic 1,125 infected premises resulted in the slaughter of 55,000 animals, whereas in 1967-68 the number of infected premises was about double the 1922 figure, but the number of animals slaughtered increased by eight times, to over 400,000. A trend of greater propensity to slaughter as time goes on seems to emerge, and is confirmed in the present epidemic: by mid-September, 2001, there had been 2,023 confirmed cases, as a result of which almost 3.9 million animals had been slaughtered, of which 1.3 million were on infected premises, with most of the rest falling under the heading of `dangerous contacts'. In part at least, these increased numbers are due to the greater size of present-day flocks and herds; and another significant factor is that sheep, in which the disease is particularly difficult to diagnose (so adding to the incentive to cull possible contacts), have been much more affected in the present outbreak than in previous ones, accounting for 80 per cent of the animals slaughtered.

But there have been other differences too. Perhaps because of the impact of that other animal epidemic, BSE, or perhaps because the government's record of administrative efficiency was beginning to be an election issue, the media seem to have been much more interested in the present epidemic than they were in previous ones. The 1967-68 epidemic began on Wednesday October 25th, 1967, and The Times carried an eight-line inside page report the following day saying that cattle had been forbidden to leave the Dairy Show until cleared. A few lines the following Monday reported the spread of FMD, and MAFF's statement the following Wednesday (November 1st) that the disease had reached epidemic proportions merited only nineteen single column lines at the bottom of page two. A short leading article on Tuesday November 7th supported MAFF and the slaughter policy, and it was not until the following day that the first picture of carcasses appeared, on an inside page. Going back further, to the 1941-42 epidemic, it is interesting to find that neither of the official histories of wartime agriculture or food supplies mentions it. Tourism and access to the countryside have also been much bigger issues in the present epidemic than in previous ones. The Northumberland committee (1969) did discuss the movement of people in the countryside, but in the context of `sporting events and recreational activities', under which heading they mentioned horse racing, coursing, hunting, shooting and fishing. `Tourism' is not a term which appears in their report, and this is presumably a reflection of the greater relative importance that agriculture had in the rural economy of the 1960s as compared with today.

Foot and Mouth Disease has claimed many more animal victims in 2001 than in previous epidemics. Only the next few years will reveal its impact on the rural economy and society. The national reaction to it also reflects changes in the rural economy and in the role of the media. But whether or not these differences are sufficient to account for the demise of MAFF, or, at least, its conversion to DEFRA, is a question for historians yet to come. Or, perhaps, for the last minister in the Cabinet.

Paul Brassley is Senior Lecturer in Agricultural Economics at the University of Plymouth.
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Title Annotation:Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
Author:Brassley, Paul
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 1, 2001
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