I am glad of the opportunity to update you again on the most recent developments in relation to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the United Kingdom and now in France.
You will recall that the first outbreak in the UK was confirmed on 20 February in the evening. The Commission adopted a safeguard decision the following day on 21 February. This measure imposed a ban on the export of certain live animals (cattle, sheep, goats…) from the UK and restrictions on the export of meat, meat products, milk and milk products and certain animal products.
Since then further measures have been introduced to ban movements of livestock throughout the EU. This measure is precautionary and aimed at reducing to the very minimum any potential for the spread of the disease. It must also be viewed in the context of the continued increase in cases in the UK. Any expectation that the crisis would quickly end have been disappointed.
Clearly, we need to be very concerned at the evolution of the outbreak. Three factors in particular are disturbing.
First, the continuing uncertainty over when the incidence in the UK will peak. Second, the discovery of a case in France which ends our hopes that the outbreak might be confined to the UK. Third, the imposition by third countries of restrictions, many totally unjustified, on imports of Community products.
I would now like to turn to each of these concerns, beginning with the incidence in the UK . It is clearly disappointing that expectations that the incidence of the disease would shortly peak have not yet been realised.
The veterinary experts remain of the view that the restrictions on animal movements will in time limit the potential spread of the disease. This highlights the continued need for vigilance in the UK and for the strictest possible implementation of the measures already in place. Since the initial decision to ban exports of certain meat and meat products, dairy products etc. there has been a ban on movements of livestock, both in the UK and also in other Member States.
While these restrictions are naturally unpopular they are a small price to pay compared to the consequences of not quickly eradicating the disease. I would hope that this greater good is not lost sight of in the present crisis.
Turning to France. I am sure that everybody shares the Commission's concern at the discovery of the first case of the disease on the European mainland. As you are no doubt aware, a case of foot and mouth disease was confirmed yesterday in North West France in the Mayenne region.
It was detected in a cattle farm under restrictions imposed preventively more than a week prior to the confirmation of the outbreak. The cattle farm is beside a farm where incubating sheep had been imported from the United Kingdom on 16 February, i.e. a few days before the outbreak in the UK.
The incubating sheep from the UK had been destroyed on 1 March 2001 as a prevention measure in accordance with the relevant Commission Decision. The slaughtering and destruction of all 114 cattle in the confirmed outbreak have started yesterday evening and this operation is still ongoing.
This discovery dashes our hopes that the disease could be confined to the UK. However, we can take considerable comfort from the very decisive action taken by the French authorities to isolate and destroy livestock which had been potentially exposed to contaminated animals imported from the UK.
The early action to restrict movements of livestock in France should also have reduced the potential spread of the disease. These measures, wrongly viewed as excessive by some, have proven to be very prudent.
Nonetheless, there is a risk of further outbreaks and the situation will have to be very closely monitored. The Standing Veterinary Committee took the decision late yesterday evening to ban exports of susceptible animals from France and to also impose restrictions on the movement of animals and certain products from the Mayenne department and the adjoining departement of Orne.
Clearly, any further outbreaks would require additional restrictions on the regions concerned. But the prompt action taken by the French authorities will hopefully ensure that there will not be a need for more draconian measures.
Turning to third countries, the Commission is deeply disappointed that the very firm and decisive action taken to tackle the current outbreak has not received the recognition it deserves. Instead of taking reassurance from this firm action, third countries have responded in many cases with restrictions which are both excessive and unnecessary.
The Commission is urgently establishing with the third countries concerned the basis and rationale for the restrictions adopted. We will, of course, be explaining the measures already in place which ensure that such restrictions are not necessary. And, if necessary, we will make full use of our bilateral contacts and our WTO trade arrangements to have these restrictions lifted.
I have already been in contact with the US Secretary for Agriculture regarding the measures imposed by the US. I was reassured by the Secretary that these measures will be reviewed urgently. We have agreed that our respective veterinary services should co-operate urgently on finding solutions. We closed with a commitment to remain in close contact until a solution is found.
As an example of the approach followed by the Commission I would point to the Community approach towards the Argentine. Beef imports have been permitted from the Argentine despite its regional problems with foot and mouth disease. This was of course subject to very strict controls, namely that the beef had to be from BSE-free regions, deboned and matured to eliminate the risk of transmission of the disease.
It was only following the further recent outbreaks, the introduction of vaccination and the self-imposed ban on exports to the US and Canada that the Commission felt compelled to ban imports of beef from the Argentine. The Commission remains committed nonetheless to a regionalisation approach which can allow exports to resume in safe conditions.
On a more general level, I would once more to defend the firm action taken by the Commission in dealing with the current outbreak. It is an essential and very necessary reaction to a highly infectious disease with potentially huge economic and trade consequences for the entire EU.
This approach continues to enjoy the strong support of the Member States in the Standing Veterinary Committee and in the Agriculture Council. It is also supported by the farming community throughout the EU who are very conscious of the grave threat to their livelihoods from the disease.
In this respect I would like to add that there is still a consensus that vaccination should not be resorted to except in the circumstances I have outlined before. Namely in the context of preventative measures where it is necessary to stop the further spread of the disease pending eradication measures.
I would like to conclude with my assurances that the Commission will continue to put all its resources into eradicating this outbreak as quickly as possible. I continue to be impressed with the huge commitment of the Member States to rapid and decisive action to restore the entire EU to its previous FMD-free status.
Thank you for your attention.