LONDON (Reuters) - The European Union banned all British exports of fresh meat, live animals and milk products on Monday following an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, dealing a further blow to farmers.
British farmers - hard hit by mad cow disease and bird flu in recent years as well as a devastating outbreak of foot and mouth in 2001 - voiced concern over the threat to their livelihoods and to the $1 billion-a-year meat export industry.
They were also angered at the possible link between the outbreak and two animal health laboratories located a few miles from where the highly contagious foot-and-mouth virus infected cattle at a farm in southeast England.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown, visiting a disease control centre close to the affected area, said a major national effort was under way to halt the infection.
"We are desperately trying at the earliest opportunity to contain and control this disease and then to eradicate it," he said.
The government's chief veterinary officer, Debby Reynolds, said investigators were looking at whether recent floods played a role in transmitting the virus.
Brown cancelled his holiday to lead the response, hoping that swift action will avoid a repeat of the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak when six million animals were slaughtered.
The 2001 outbreak also hit tourism hard, costing the economy an estimated 8.5 billion pounds ($17 billion).
Investigators hunting for the source of the infection focused on the laboratories -- one government-funded and the other run by Merial Animal Health Ltd, a major animal health firm with 2006 sales of $2.2 billion.
Merial is jointly owned by U.S. drugmaker Merck & Co. Inc and France's Sanofi-Aventis SA.
The government-funded lab researches animal diseases while the Merial lab produces vaccines. Both keep stocks of foot-and-mouth viruses for research, including the uncommon strain that infected the cattle.
RESULTS ON TUESDAY
Results of the probe were not expected until Tuesday and both laboratories said they found no breaches in their security.
Attention focused on the labs after the agriculture ministry said the strain of virus found in the cattle was one isolated 40 years ago by British researchers.
Reynolds said the government had ordered foot-and-mouth vaccine to be produced as part of its contingency plan and vaccination teams would move into the affected area.
"This is not an indication of a decision to vaccinate. It hasn't been taken," she told a news conference, adding that the vaccine would be produced at the Merial laboratory.
Some 120 cattle have been slaughtered at the infected farm and a neighbouring one. Two animals have so far tested positive for foot and mouth.
As well as the EU ban, several countries blocked imports of meat or animals coming from Britain, or planned to do so.
Japan and South Korea have temporarily halted pork imports, while the United States - which already restricts imports of British cattle and sheep due to other health scares - has said it will ban imports of pork and pork products.
Ireland has banned imports of meat and non-pasteurised milk as well as livestock from Britain.
British farmers are not entitled to receive any EU aid as compensation for any losses incurred, Commission officials said.
"This is a major setback when the entire industry has been working hard to build a healthy export market," said Stuart Roberts, director of the British Meat Processors' Association.
British beef exports have only just begun to recover after import bans imposed over mad cow disease.
A movement ban on animals was in force across Britain, meaning farmers could not send their livestock for sale.
(Additional reporting by Luke Baker, Nigel Hunt and Kate Kelland in London and Darren Ennis in Brussels)
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