LONDON (Reuters) — Britain's chief vet brushed aside angry protests from farmers Monday and pledged to push ahead with a mass cull of healthy animals in areas stricken by the foot-and-mouth epidemic sweeping the country.
The government's chief veterinary officer, Jim Scudamore, spent hours in talks with farmers from Cumbria in northwest England — one of the worst affected areas — but was not swayed by their pleas to spare the lives of animals not yet infected.
"It hasn't changed my mind about what should be done," he said. "The view is that all these sheep in these areas pose a risk."
Agriculture Minister Nick Brown last week announced plans to slaughter tens of thousands of "healthy but high-risk" sheep in diseased areas of the country.
His words prompted a wave of protests among farmers who demanded to know why the government wanted to kill healthy animals when they were already struggling with culling and destroying diseased animals.
As the number of confirmed infected sites rose to 326 across Britain, farmers said piles of carcasses were rotting in farmyards and ministry of agriculture officials were often taking days to kill animals with the disease.
Anne Young, a Cumbrian sheep farmer told BBC radio farms in her area were piled high with stinking, decomposing carcasses.
"The animals are still lying here," she said. "They are rotting, the smell is horrendous, it's encouraging rats, and birds are pecking at the carcasses and spreading the disease."
"They should get diseased animals dealt with before even thinking of moving onto healthy flocks," said Young.
But Scudamore insisted government vets and officials had to make a two-pronged attack on the highly contagious outbreak.
"The top priority is dealing with diseased animals and the infected farms," he said. "The second priority—which is almost as important—is dealing with the preventive cull (of healthy animals in high risk areas)."
Opposition to the mass slaughter in Britain also grew in Europe, where agriculture ministers were meeting in Brussels to discuss the crisis.
Dutch farm minister Laurens-Jan Brinkhorst complained that building funeral pyres for huge numbers of animals that could be vaccinated against foot-and-mouth disease was unethical.
Britain's Brown said he would set out Britain's policies for his fellow European ministers. "I am going to explain what we have been doing to contain and exterminate this disease," he said as he arrived for the talks.
The European Union slapped a ban on all exports of livestock and meat from Britain when vets first found the disease almost a month ago. France—which detected one case of foot-and-mouth last week—appears to have prevented any further spread.
British farming and political leaders admitted on Sunday the foot-and-mouth outbreak, which is threatening to cost the economy as much as nine billion pounds ($13 billion), could last until the end of the year.
"The downstream consequences of this disease will mean that there will be movement restrictions on livestock, certainly on the sheep, for the foreseeable future—certainly for the rest of this year," said Ben Gill, president of the NFU.
The foot-and-mouth outbreak has dealt a devastating blow to Britain's farming community, which is only just recovering from mad cow disease. Tourism is losing tens of millions of pounds a week with people told to keep out of the countryside.
Sporting events including horse racing and rugby union have been called off, countries around the world have banned imports of meat from Britain and other European countries, and British travellers are being disinfected on arrival abroad.