‘Carnage by Computer’: The Blackboard Economics of the 2001 Foot and Mouth Epidemic

Published date01 December 2003
Date01 December 2003
Subject MatterJournal Article
Cardiff Law School and ESRC Centre for Business Relationships, Accountability,
Sustainability and Society (BRASS), UK
The foot and mouth disease (FMD) epidemic in the UK in 2001 had devastating con-
sequences, including the slaughter of millions of animals and huge losses to the rural
economy. The regulatory policies devised to deal with FMD so gravely misconceived
the magnitude of the risk that an outbreak was destined to become an epidemic. This
article seeks to draw lessons for regulatory policy by examining the nature of the dis-
aster and the chosen methods of control both before and during the epidemic. It
rejects the analysis of the epidemic offered by the government agency responsible and
argues that the policies adopted provide a classic example of Coase’s notion of ‘black-
board economics’. The public interventions, although appearing to work splendidly
in the abstract, showed little sensitivity to the conditions actually prevailing in modern
livestock rearing, and as a result their consequences were not merely imperfect but
actually pernicious. We reach the sad conclusion that few lessons have been learned
from the outbreak, as the very practices largely responsible for the epidemic are still
prevalent, and as legislation and contingency planning show signs of a preparedness
merely to repeat the same mistakes.
In a series of papers of which this was the f‌irst drafted, we will draw con-
clusions for regulatory theory and policy from the epidemic of foot and
mouth disease (FMD) in the UK in 2001. Our work makes repeated refer-
ence to the various local, national and EU off‌icial inquiries into the epidemic,
including the three specially commissioned by the UK government: The
Future of Farming and Food, chaired by Sir Don Curry (Curry, 2002);
SOCIAL &LEGAL STUDIES 0964 6639 (200312) 12:4 Copyright © 2003
SAGE Publications, London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi,
Vol. 12(4), 425–459; 038415
Infectious Diseases in Livestock (IDL), chaired by Sir Brian Follett (Royal
Society, 2002); and Lessons to be Learned (LTBL), chaired by Dr Iain Ander-
son (Anderson, 2002). However, we intend our work to be a direct challenge
to the most important of these inquiries, LTBL, for the principal lesson to be
learned is sadly missing from the report of this inquiry and all other off‌icial
analyses: the FMD epidemic was not merely badly managed by the govern-
ment but was caused by the government’s disease control policies. The 2001
FMD epidemic is a marked regulatory failure which, despite the essential
simplicity of the issues in terms of policy formulation, the government still
shows little sign of being able to address adequately.
Our argument is that though the agent responsible for FMD is the FMD
virus, the 2001 epidemic was caused by the policies of a UK public body, the
Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), devised within an EU
strategy for FMD control. FMD was regarded as a problem requiring state
intervention, and disease control was treated as a public good, as indeed it has
to be if the method of control is large-scale slaughter, for this cannot be
carried out other than by the state. However, not merely was no compelling
reason off‌icially advanced at EU or UK level why FMD should be regarded
as other than a normal business risk, but the conduct of the public disease
control policies was so poor that it resulted in perhaps the largest epidemic
of FMD ever known (Clover and Beswick, 2001), certainly the one in which
most animals were slaughtered.1
This slaughter has occasioned an economic loss which the Department of
the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) estimates to be £9 billion
(DEFRA/DCMS, 2002). This f‌igure is but a remote expression of the con-
crete losses, which include:
1. the premature deaths of over ten million animals (Robertson, 2002; Uhlig,
2002a), killed in ways which were often unacceptably, indeed criminally,
inhumane and sometimes so horribly cruel as to be an occasion of lasting
national shame;
2. the loss of irreplaceable special breeds;
3. the horror experienced by those with a scrap of humanity involved in the
4. the misery of thousands of small farmers and small businesspersons in
areas related to farming and tourism whose incomes were drastically
reduced, some of whom were driven into bankruptcy;
5. the (continuing) pollution caused by the disposal of carcasses;
6. the frustration of the enjoyment of the countryside for a year;
7. a descent into criminal and ultra vires (if unpunished) authoritarianism by
MAFF, which had to persistently exceed its powers, breach its own regu-
lations, and use excessive f‌inancial inducements, or intimidation when
these failed, to implement a policy so lacking in merit that it could not
have been implemented by rational persuasion.
The FMD crisis is, in sum, an object lesson in how not to regulate. There are
so many of these lessons readily to hand that the point in drawing attention to
this one is the enormity of what was done, for that a policy can be imple-
mented despite having costs on this scale should really deepen even further
our awareness of the possible extent of ‘government failure’.
Our explanation of why a policy with such disastrous consequences could
be adopted involves three specif‌ic claims. First, it was the rearing practices
central to the UK livestock industry which created the conditions in which
an initial outbreak of FMD (which was inevitable) could become epidemic.
Second, the regulatory policies devised to deal with that initial outbreak were
hopelessly inadequate to the magnitude of the risk and could not stop the
outbreak becoming epidemic. Third, it was because these practices and
policies were implemented in an environment of almost total lawlessness that
the government’s response to their failure could take the form of immense,
unlawful slaughter. It is not possible to make all of these claims convincingly
within the conf‌ines of a single article. In this f‌irst article we will focus on
the second claim, the substance of which has more or less entirely preoccu-
pied public debate and which therefore seems the most appropriate place to
start, if only to show how essential it is to expand the parameters of that
We will brief‌ly describe the epidemiology of FMD and the character of the
disease control policy taken towards it, and then show how this policy was
grossly inadequate to control what became an epidemic. When this article
was f‌irst drafted, it was an attempt to evaluate MAFF’s performance during
the epidemic, for the government was then propounding a seriously mis-
leading evaluation (HM Government, 2002).2This is now otiose, at least in a
theoretical paper, for, in the light of the overwhelming evidence, there is wide
agreement, to which LTBL and even, to a limited extent, DEFRA itself now
subscribe, that MAFF’s performance was very poor. In these circumstances,
LTBL is but one of a large number of inf‌luential calls for the government to
prepare better contingency plans. With hindsight, many extra provisions for
dealing with another outbreak have been proposed: greater numbers of vets
to identify the disease; more off‌icials to enforce precautionary measures,
particularly the inspection of overseas meat imports; bigger rendering plants;
the army maintained at greater readiness, and so on. But the costs of con-
trolling a future outbreak in this way will be enormous, indeed they appear
quite fanciful, and they do not address the root of the matter. If questioned
prior to the epidemic, MAFF would certainly have said it had adequate con-
tingency plans in place; and indeed, as we will see, one of the reasons the out-
break became epidemic was that during its initial stages MAFF wrongly
insisted that the disease was under control. We will argue that the inadequacy
of the contingency plans and the misplaced faith in them is a stark example
of what Coase calls ‘blackboard economics’: policies that work superbly, or
even perfectly, on the blackboard, but which are seen to be weak or even
risible when the costs of actually implementing them are properly evaluated.
The effort now is to improve public disease control, but whether FMD
control is properly regarded as a public good is not even in any off‌icial dis-
cussion of which we are aware. Unless this question is adequately answered,

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