Image: Farm
Daniel Berehulak  /  Getty Images
An employee of Britain's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs stands in front of a closed footpath near the entrance to a farm affected by foot and mouth disease on August 6, 2007 near the village of Normandy in Surrey, England.
updated 8/6/2007 2:26:10 PM ET 2007-08-06T18:26:10

Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Monday toured an emergency response center set up to deal with an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in southern England and reassured farmers the government was taking swift measures to stem the spread of the virus.

The European Union endorsed Britain's decision to ban meat and dairy exports.

Brown, who came back early from vacation to handle the government's response to the outbreak, held talks at his London office with farming union leaders and pledged to do everything possible to avoid a repeat of mass infections that devastated the economy in 2001.

"No resources will be spared to get to the bottom of this because we know the future of farming depends on it," he said during a visit to the emergency response center in Reigate.

He said experts were working to pinpoint the precise cause of the outbreak, but added that the strain of the disease found in two infected cattle at the farm where the outbreak occurred is the same one used at a research laboratory nearby.

The laboratory is shared by the government's Institute for Animal Health, or IAH, and a private pharmaceutical company, Merial Animal Health — the British arm of Duluth, Ga.-based Merial Ltd.

Lab had 'limited use' of virus
Merial said Monday it found no evidence of a breach in biosecurity, and the IAH claimed a check of records found "limited use" of the virus in the past four weeks.

Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said a report by the country's Health and Safety Executive inspectors is expected within 48 hours.

"We have got to make sure this doesn't spread any further," Benn told British Broadcasting Corp. radio, recalling the last foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001 when 7 million animals were incinerated on pyres across the country, hurting the agriculture industry and rural tourism.

Veterinary experts matched the strain found last week in cattle on a farm outside Wanborough, 30 miles southwest of London, to the laboratory, which manufactures vaccines against the disease.

But Merial Animal Health's managing director, David Biland, said Monday that initial inquiries had shown there had been no failures in security at the plant.

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"To date our investigations continue to show no breach in our procedures. However, it is still too early in this investigation for anyone to determine the cause of the outbreak," he said.

If the outbreak is found to be linked to one of the two sites at the facility, it likely means the infection will be contained to nearby cattle, reducing the risks of a repeat of the mass outbreaks six years ago, officials said.

Outraged farmers
Peter Kendall, president of the National Farmers Union, said following talks with Brown that his members were angry the outbreak may have originated at the research laboratory.

Farmers have worked hard to meet tight controls on the movement of livestock since the 2001 outbreak and would be horrified if scientists had mistakenly released the disease through lax practices, he said.

"We want this stamped out and controlled and life getting back to normal," Kendall said. "The most important thing at this moment is eradication and containment."

Foot-and-mouth disease affects cloven-hoofed animals including cows, sheep, pigs and goats, but does not typically affect humans.

Around 120 cows were slaughtered over the weekend after the virus was identified and confirmed in two animals Saturday, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said.

U.K. pork products banned in U.S.
Imports of British pigs and pork products have been banned by the United States, Japan, Russia and South Korea in response to the outbreak. The United States and Japan already have bans in place on British beef imports.

The European Commission endorsed Britain's ban on the export of livestock, meat and milk. The commission also backed London's decision to halt movement of cattle, sheep, goats and pigs nationwide to prevent the spread of the virus.

To reduce the economic impact, the commission said the ban would exclude animal products produced before July 15, which have been treated to destroy any possible virus or those manufactured using animals reared outside Britain.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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