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Farmers wonder: Is the cure far worse than the disease?

Critics say the British government is badly bungling its response to the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak.

Frank Langrish's family has been raising sheep in England since the 1600s, when Oliver Cromwell ruled this green and fertile land. Although Langrish's ewes have yet to be infected with foot-and-mouth disease, he knows it could just be a matter of time before centuries of farming tradition come to a gruesome end.

But Langrish increasingly wonders which is worse: the disease or what many feel has been the British government's bungled reaction to it.

"It's a nightmare scenario," says Langrish, whose 4,000 sheep roam a 1,500-acre farm in Sussex, south of London. "The government hasn't thought anything through _ they're just prevaricating at the moment and worrying about the cost."

On Monday, six more cases were confirmed, bringing the number of known cases throughout Britain to 335. The figure might sound small in a country where cows, sheep and pigs outnumber the 60-million human inhabitants. But it represents the worst outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease here since 1967, and no one can see an end in sight.

Already, thousands of animals have been slaughtered and burned to prevent the spread of the disease. Thousands more await the pyres, their bloated, stiffened carcasses transforming the pastoral landscape into a Dante-esque hell and threatening Britain's hugely important tourism industry. All told, the crisis could cost the economy an estimated $13-billion.

Britons can still buy meat in stores and restaurants _ the famed food hall at Harrod's was prominently displaying "English lamb" and "English pork" on Monday at prices that hardly suggested a decline in demand.

But meat consumption is down throughout the country, and Hilton announced it is pulling pork and lamb from the menus in all 79 of its British hotels, replacing them with turkey, fish and pasta dishes.

Foot-and-mouth disease is not harmful to humans, either from exposure to the virus that causes it or by eating meat from infected animals. Nor is it usually fatal to the animals themselves.

However, the disease can reduce an animal's value by stunting growth or affecting the amount of milk it produces. And in the highly competitive global market, a country like Britain that is a major exporter of meat cannot afford to produce livestock of inferior quality.

While there is near-unanimous agreement the disease must be eradicated, more and more Britons think the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair has taken a wrong-headed approach.

"Culling program is in chaos," read the banner headline on Monday's Independent, reflecting outrage over the government's plan to kill thousands of healthy animals to prevent the spread of the disease.

"Ruthless Logic _ foot-and-mouth precautions lack consistent credibility," said the lead editorial in the Times, another London paper.

Increasingly, critics have focused on the sharp differences in how Britain handled the 1967 outbreak compared to now, when the consequences of the disease are potentially far more disastrous.

In 1967, infected animals were quickly killed and buried on site.

Now, farmers sometimes have to wait several days before testing confirms an animal is sick, increasing chances the highly contagious disease will spread. Because of a shortage of qualified veterinarians, there may be further delays before the animal is put to death.

And even after the animal is killed, its carcass might remain for several more days. Burials have been banned to avoid possible groundwater contamination. Instead, most dead animals are trucked for miles, sometimes past farms with healthy livestock, to giant funeral pyres.

"They haven't acted fast enough," Langrish, the sheep farmer, says of the government. "There are 100,000 animals that have the disease and are waiting to be slaughtered, and on top of that another 50,000 have had dangerous contacts (with infected animals).

"I got a call from a fellow who's sitting on several thousand sheep with dangerous contacts that are costing him $750 a day to feed, and (authorities) won't say what they're going to do. They originally said they were going to slaughter them all, and now they've changed their minds again."

Britain's agriculture minister, Nick Brown, shocked farmers last week when he announced plans to kill up to 1-million healthy animals living within 2 miles of infected farms. Reacting to the public outcry, Brown's office has since said the slaughter would exclude cattle and apply only to pigs and sheep.

However, even that could mean the destruction of hundreds of rare animals including Merino sheep, whose wool is highly prized by the fashion industry.

Meanwhile, Blair's government is resisting calls to speed up the slaughter of sick animals by using professional hunters as well as veterinarians. Nor will it let the army help dispose of carcasses, fearing the presence of soldiers would create a crisis atmosphere.

Although some areas of the British countryside have been shut off to visitors for fear of spreading the disease, critics say Britain has been surprisingly lenient compared with Ireland, which hasn't had a reported case.

The Irish banned all horse racing and other outdoor sporting events, closed most tourist attractions and even canceled the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Dublin.

In Britain, soccer matches have been played as scheduled, a huge $120-million horticultural theme park in Cornwall was permitted to open and racing resumed after just a week's hiatus. Even Queen Elizabeth has questioned that decision, although two of her own horses are due to race this week.

The government's approach to the crisis "has rightly baffled observers," the Times editorialized Monday.

A growing number of Britons also question Blair's decision to go ahead with a national election in May, even though there is no particular reason to have it. While his Labor Party is still comfortably ahead in the polls, critics say it is insensitive to hold an election at a time when so many are suffering.

"I think it will hurt Blair's government," says Langrish. "They are such an urban group they do not understand the significance of what's happening on the ground. They don't realize the effect on other industries; agriculture in its own right is insignificant, but the ancillary industries like food processing and carpetmaking are huge. A lot of other industries are effectively closed down at the moment and won't survive."

As for Langrish, he is taking every precaution he can to keep his flock from being infected: limiting the trips he makes beyond his farm, disinfecting shoes and tires. The government pays only about 70 percent of the value of animals it slaughters, and that isn't enough, Langrish says.

"Have I thought about getting out of this business? Yeah, a lot lately."

_ Susan Martin can be contacted at

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