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U.K. Foot and Mouth Report Finds Government Lab at Fault

An investigation into an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Britain last month has highlighted biosecurity breaches at a government-funded laboratory.

"There was some evidence of a complacency on safety at IAH

(Institute of Animal Health)," Brian Spratt, who chaired a government investigation into the source of the outbreak, told a news conference on Friday.

Foot and mouth disease was confirmed on two farms in Surrey, southern England, with the first case declared on August 3.

The outbreak has been traced back to the Pirbright research centre, just a few miles from the site of the outbreak, where work was undertaken on developing foot and mouth vaccines.

"There can be no excuse for the fact that foot and mouth escaped from the Pirbright lab. It must not happen again," said Britain's farm and environment minister, Hilary Benn.

The site houses two laboratories. One is run by the IAH and the other by Merial, a private company owned by U.S. firm Merck and French firm Sanofi-Aventis.

Spratt said the Merial site was "modern and well maintained" and had "no problem with biosecurity" while the IAH laboratory was an "ageing facility and was due to be replaced."

"Maintaining safety in an old facility is challenging and expensive," he noted.

Geoffrey Podger, chief executive of the government's Health and Safety Executive which issued a separate report, said it was "highly likely" the virus entered a drainage system which was shared by IAH and Merial.

Leaking Pipes

Leaks in the pipes combined with heavy rains may have allowed it to reach the surface where vehicles used by building workers may have carried it outside the facility, he said.

"It is our conclusion that the breaches we have identified in biosecurity arrangements for handling liquid waste are likely to have occasioned a breach of containment and release of FMD strain ... on to the Pirbright site," Podger's report said.

Britain's National Farmers Union said it might seek compensation through the courts.

"I find it well-nigh incredible and quite indefensible that standards should have been as lax as these reports appear to reveal, given that those concerned were handling some of the most dangerous animal viruses on the planet," NFU president Peter Kendall said in a statement.

"This outbreak has cost the British livestock industry tens of millions of pounds and it is inevitable that farmers, and many others, will be asking lawyers to consider the case for seeking compensation through the courts," he added.

The government imposed a ban on livestock movements after the outbreak and some restrictions have already been lifted.

The government's Chief Veterinary Officer Debby Reynolds said the surveillance zone in Surrey would be lifted from Saturday. She noted that the earliest Britain could achieve international foot and mouth free status was November 7.

"I am satisfied that food and mouth has been eradicated from the U.K. in 2007," she said.