Employees could have spread foot and mouth

Investigators are looking into the possibility that foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) was transferred to a farm in Surrey by employees of Merial.

Investigators are looking into the possibility that foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) was transferred to a farm in Surrey by employees of Merial, the vaccine manufacturer in nearby Pirbright.

Health inspectors said one line of inquiry is that the Merial staff may have picked up the infection because of drainage problems.

The National Farmers' Union (NFU) has warned it could take legal action against anyone found responsible for the outbreak, however Merial said there was no evidence FMD was spread by humans.

According to BBC reports, ongoing investigations made a link between problems with drainage and the possible actions, accidental or deliberate, of Merial employees who may own or use land near to the farm where the outbreak began.

Yesterday, the Health & Safety Executive found there was a "strong probability" the foot-and-mouth outbreak began at the Pirbright research site, home to Merial and the state-run Institute for Animal Health. However, it did not specify which facility was to blame.

The HSE said there was a "negligible" risk it had been spread by the wind or flooding. But its report said the disease could have been the result of human movement or "accidental or deliberate transfer".

In a statement, Merial said: "Over the last three and a half days we have conducted intensive internal investigations and, as a result, continue to have complete confidence in our processes and procedures for health, safety and environmental protection, quality control, quality assurance and regulatory compliance.

"To date, we have not been able to establish any evidence that the virus may have been transported out of our centre by humans."

The company also said it "does not release water from the shared Pirbright site.

"We ensure that the water we use in our virus production is treated. We then transfer it to the IAH who treat it further and release it."

Further investigations are to be carried out into drainage on the site and also into the possibility the disease had been released by human movement, said Defra minister Hilary Benn.

Meanwhile, NFU president Peter Kendall told BBC Two's Newsnight programme the union was considering legal action.

He said: "If this turns out to be a commercial company that has been and can be shown to have been careless in any way, my members are already very loudly saying, 'we've lost money, our businesses are no longer able to function, we've got animals, extra feed costs, problems with capacity being squeezed on farms'."