Mountains of Misery: Hoof-and-Mouth Disease Resurfaces in Europe
In late February 2001, while still reeling from the devastating effects of mad cow disease, the British beef industry was walloped again. This time it was hit by a new wave a hoof-and-mouth disease, a sickness not seen in Britain since 1967 when the nation slaughtered nearly half a million animals. Although, so far, more animals were killed during the last epidemic, the current outbreak is more widespread geographically. Fearing an uncontrollable contagion, Britain has become like a sealed compound. The European Union has placed severe restrictions on livestock movement; the United States, Japan, and other countries have banned livestock products from numerous European countries; and nations such as Russia, Spain, France, Germany, and Belgium are destroying animals imported from Britain.
A virus first identified in 1897 causes hoof-and-mouth disease. In a global marketplace, it is indeterminate and perhaps impossible to identify the origins of the disease. Although the British government blames Southern nations for the outbreak, others argue that the current epidemic originated in Northern England and spread rapidly throughout farms in Britain and several European countries. To date, some 50,000 animals have been slaughtered to prevent further migration of the disease. Mountains of burning carcasses light up the night skies in a grisly conflagration, with no end in sight. As evidence of the levels such “preventative measures” can reach, in 1997 Thailand culled 3.6 million pigs from a herd of 11 million. The orgy of killing includes animals that are non-infected and healthy, but are suspect. Since testing individual animals simply is not economical or efficient, the policy is to shoot first and ask questions later.
Hoof-and-mouth is a highly contagious viral disease that can be spread through shoes, clothing, birds, infected feed and soil, the air (traveling up to 200 miles), and even automobiles. Typically, in wild herbivores like bison, deep, and antelope, and in cloven-hoofed animals such as cattle, pigs, goats, and sheep, the disease causes fever, loss of appetite, and painful blisters on the hoofs and in the mouth. Although the disease can kill very young or old animals, it is non-fatal to those in median years. Farmers, agriculture industries, and veterinarians cull entire herds not to practice euthanasia -- the effects of the disease are likened to a bad cold -- but rather to protect profits: animals that that eat less, lose weight, become lame, and produce less milk have diminished market value. Framed as nothing but commodities and resources, “sick” animals accordingly are slaughtered in staggering numbers. Vaccinations are available, but the industry finds them unreliable and not cost-effective, so the market and profit imperatives dictate a holocaust.
Although not fatal to most animals, hoof-and-mouth disease can have deadly effects on agriculture economies. Consequently, extraordinary measures have been taken throughout Europe to protect the further spread of the disease. Hundreds of farms are under restrictions. Sporting events such as horseracing, hunting, fishing, and rugby games have been halted to minimize human traffic. Schools are being temporarily shut down; many national parks, zoos, and hiking trails are closed; and trips to the countryside are being prohibited. Farmers are not allowing visitors to their farms and are rarely leaving their own property. In the Land of Lysol, people have to disinfect their feet at airports, and even cars are being treated. Britain may postpone national elections to keep human feet from trampling around promiscuously, and Ireland has cancelled celebration plans for St. Patrick’s Day.
Thus, a siege mentality has developed in Europe. As with mad cow disease, there is a huge paranoia surrounding hoof-and-mouth disease. Countries like Germany are checking to make sure no meat from Britain enters their land. Thailand is so intent on preventative measures that they have imposed a 2-year jail sentence on anyone caught carrying a meat sandwich from Britain. In a replay of mad cow disease, countries are once again banning British beef in particular, and European beef in general.
The beef industry is teetering. Jean-Luc Meriaux, head of the European Union’s meat trading association, said that the migration of hoof-and-mouth disease to mainland Europe would be “an absolute disaster” for the meat industry, even more catastrophic than mad cow disease. The economic impact would reach far beyond the meat and dairy industries themselves to effect related industries such as tourism and trucking. Just like carnivorous consumers, modern economies are addicted to violence and the mass slaughter of animals.
Despite government admonitions to remain calm, consumers have raided meat counters and Britain has limited meat stocks and rising meat prices. Sadly, in the popular mind, meat shortages have been confused with food shortages and people feel a deprivation rather than opportunity to shift to a healthier, more humane, and ecologically sustainable diet. The impression of food scarcity has been exacerbated by constant media images of empty meat counters and disappointed customers. The same mentality is replayed in the context of mad cow disease, as Europeans have switched to chicken, fish, and horsemeat, and have even taken to raiding zoos for consumable flesh.
Television news images show the spectacle of farmers mourning, but the crocodile tears are shed over falling profits rather than lost lives. The funeral pyres of animals mildly ill or even suspect of sickness vividly dramatize the fact that farming is an industry governed by crass profit imperatives. Millions can be burned, while millions more are born; in the eyes of the industry, each animal is a replaceable commodity not an individual. This does not mitigate the fact, however that European farmers are being hit incredibly hard, as thousands go into bankruptcy and many commit suicide. In Britain, for example, farm incomes have plummeted by more than two-thirds in the last five years. Still, one has to wonder if farmers really are better off burning mountains of bodies rather than marketing animals that produce less milk and are underweight.
After an onslaught of falling prices, mad cow disease, swine fever, and hoof-and-mouth disease, British farmer Oliver Edwards laments: “Every way we turn, everything we do – it’s all bad luck.” Bad luck? More like madness. More like the systemic and unavoidable consequences of an insane industrial farming system premised upon obscene destruction of life and the earth.
Combine the capitalist profit imperative, a factory farm system of agriculture, and a global marketplace bustling with human and animal traffic, and you get a crisis situation where infectious diseases breed rapidly, spread throughout the entire planet, and debacles in one country affect every other country. In the current global economy, an animal can be bred in Britain, fattened in France, slaughtered in Spain, and eaten in Ecuador. The pathways of disease, consequently, are difficult if not impossible to trace. Nor is there any guarantee that after hundreds of thousands of animals are massacred in the current crisis further outbreaks will not be lurking right around the corner.
While the alleged necessity of the culling of tens of thousands of animals is hotly debated, the fact remains that billions of animals are unnecessarily slaughtered to satisfy ignorant and gluttonous cravings for flesh. The inexorable logic of profit and competition demands that animals be raised under intensive confinement in mass quantities using massive amounts of chemicals to minimize the spread of disease and maximize the size and weight of animals. Trucking cattle and pigs long distances may make meat cheaper, but it also is a highly effective way to spread the hoof and mouth virus.
All this killing and trouble -- shooting, burning, burying, disinfecting -- for the sake of consuming flesh. Clearly the only way out of the numerous debacles of the global meat and dairy industries is not to enact absurd stopgap, reformist measures like using thermometers to check for safe cooking temperatures, wiping feet in disinfectant trays, or testing animals for signs of disease before slaughter. Rather, society must banish the entire system of mechanized killing, and shift to a local, organic, plant-based food system.
This necessity is becoming increasingly clear, and the inherent fallacies of factory farming are ever more debated (the German Government, for example, has appointed an Agriculture Minister from the Green Party who advocates the end of factory farming in her country). Yet the desperate measures and risks Europeans have taken to continue consuming meat shows not only how irrational the lifestyle is, but also how hard the habit and addiction to meat eating will be to break. Animal rights activists and vegetarians need to seize to the fullest advantage the current two-fold crisis of mad cow disease and hoof-and-mouth outbreak to demonstrate the inherent illogic, inhumanity, and destructiveness of the global system of meat and dairy industries. Let us turn tragedy into opportunity.