Angela Balakrishnan

Farmers sue for damages in Pirbright foot-and-mouth outbreak

A group of farmers is suing the government and two laboratories for negligence over last year’s outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

The £1.5m claim was brought by 14 livestock farmers against the Institute for Animal Health (IAH) and Merial Animal Health Limited, as operators of the Pirbright facility, and the Defra secretary, Hilary Benn, as licensor and regulator of the facility.

If the high court case is won, the laboratories and the government could face additional claims totalling more than £100m.

The IAH and Merial were at the centre of the outbreak in Normandy, Surrey, in August last year. An investigation found biosecurity breaches at the Pirbright research centre.

the two labs, which in turn caused or allowed foot-and-mouth to escape from Pirbright.

The farmers are seeking claims for losses that include the slaughter of livestock, the disposal of livestock products, disruption to farming business and damages for not being able to move livestock on or off farms.

The National Farmers Union is supporting the case and has instructed solicitors on behalf of the group of 14, who includes farmers close to the outbreak and some further afield. Sheep farmers from Cumbria and a pig-breeding business from Yorkshire were affected.

The NFU president, Peter Kendall, said: “Many farming businesses were devastated by the impacts of the outbreak and this claim is about getting redress for those farmers.

“The effects of the outbreak were crippling for livestock farmers – milk had to be poured away, herds that had taken generations to breed had to be slaughtered, high quality livestock couldn’t be exported or sold for breeding and instead had to go to slaughter, and animals couldn’t be moved to fresh grazing and had to be left where they were.”

He said the impact was still being felt by many farmers today.

“This claim is about holding to account those who were responsible,” Kendall said.

One of the farmers suing the government is John Emerson, of Hunts Hill farm, in Normandy. All of his 362 calves, pigs, cattle, and sheep were slaughtered as a precaution after some of his animals were thought to have been in contact with infected animals. None of them were actually infected.

Emerson told the BBC he had to buy and rear new stock and the compensation he received did not make up for his losses, which he estimated as more than £100,000.

“It’s been quite devastating,” he said. “It’s been quite hard – it’s a lot harder work than it has been previously.

Defra denied that it had been negligent in regulating and inspecting Pirbright. “The government recognises the strain on the farming industry that resulted from the foot and mouth disease outbreak last year […],” a spokesman said. “Statutory compensation has been paid where animals were slaughtered. However, while we cannot comment on the detail of this specific case,”

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Pirbright Laboratory

“The focus of attention of the 173 employees, plus research students and visiting scientists is on exotic viruses, ones that do not normally affect the UK.”

“As well as doing research, IAH Pirbright scientists form nine Reference Laboratories on behalf of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE)”

International Reference Laboratory

“In addition to fundamental and strategic research, the Institute for Animal Health’s Pirbright Laboratory provides a vital service in real time at times of outbreaks of disease, both nationally and internationally.”


ENDGAME (Documentary)