NZ prepares for foot and mouth 'hoax' aftermath

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The New Zealand government has swiftly dismissed reports of a foot and mouth outbreak, labelling it a "hoax", Tom Armitage reports.

According to reports in the press, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark was sent a letter by an anonymous extortionist, claiming that he had already administered a vial of the highly infectious disease to animals on Waiheke Island in the Hauraki Gulf.

But although officials have since dismissed the letter as a hoax, the Agriculture and Forestry Ministry has dispatched a team of eight government veterinarians and nine police to survey the island's 12 largest livestock farms and also monitor the health and movements of its animals.

"While we believe this is most probably a hoax, we are taking this matter seriously, and putting in place what we believe to be prudent precautions, and part of those prudent precautions include notifying our overseas trading partners of the situation,"​ Dr. Barry O'Neil, New Zealand's Agriculture and Forestry Ministry's Biosecurity Director, told a press conference yesterday.

"We've considered the likelihood of a vial of foot and mouth disease virus being smuggled into New Zealand. We believe the likelihood of someone securing such a vial would be very unlikely,"​ he added.

Furthermore, Waiheke Island is said to have very few high-risk animals on it (namely pigs) and all animals, including sheep and cattle, must remain on the island until the crisis has lapsed.

Already the EU and Japan have said that they will not accept exports from Waiheke Island until investigations have been concluded and so far Mexico remains the only country to close its borders to all New Zealand meat.

Jim Sutton, New Zealand's Minister for Trade Negotiations and Agriculture, said that he "would not be surprised"​ if other trading partners briefly closed their borders.

Tourists venturing to the popular destination have already been warned not to bring back animal produce to the mainland and security has been stepped up at the island's main entry points.

Some estimates have suggested that a potential outbreak of foot and mouth disease (something which affects all cloven-hoofed animals) could cost New Zealand's GDP US$7.3 billion and threaten around 20,000 jobs.

According to government figures released earlier this week, New Zealand generates US$23 billion (or 40 per cent) of its overall export turnover from the sale of meat, dairy and other cattle-related produce.

Although not of the same circumstances, the UK's highly publicised foot and mouth outbreak of 2001 saw the destruction of 4,047,000 cattle and cost the British farming industry an estimated £2.4 billion (US$4.5 billion) - as well as damaging the meat industry's reputation abroad and adversely affecting export sales.

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