Tag Archives: Biosecurity

The scalar politics of infectious disease governance in an era of liberalised air travel

By Helen Pallett

British_Airways_G-XLED,_Hatton_Cross-Heathrow_Airport_(14082633427)

Image credit: Au Morandarte

Fears about the continued spread of the incurable Ebola virus have reached new heights in recent days, linked to uncertainties about the ability to contain diseases in an era of liberalised air transport. Over the last eight months around 916 people have died of the disease in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. It now appears the disease has spread to Lagos in neighbouring Nigeria, with eight confirmed cases. In recent months several international aid workers, healthcare workers and missionaries have also fallen victim to the disease, travelling back to Europe and North America for treatment, prompting fears about the greater spread of the disease. Subsequently, the WHO has now labelled the current outbreak as an ‘international emergency’.

In a paper from 2011 in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Lucy Budd and colleagues considered the impacts of liberalised air transport and changes in infectious disease governance in the aftermath of the SARS and H1N1 infectious disease scares. They argued that vast increases in air passenger numbers and the growing frequency and geographical extent of long haul flights raised new challenges for international disease governance and sanitary preemption. This increased global mobility of human populations creates within itself the potential for this mobility to be disrupted and curtailed through the spread of pathogens. Infectious disease governance and prevention depends on the cooperation of a web of national, regional and global agencies – with different and sometimes contested responsibilities – while practices of disease containment must be performed within in an increasing number of highly localised sites, from the airport security line, to the local clinic and the morgue.

The ongoing Ebola outbreak points to further scalar concerns around the governance of deadly infection diseases. Recent debates have focussed on the potential for using experimental treatments imported from the West to treat Ebola victims in attempt to improve the disease’s 50% mortality rate and curtail its further spread. A key question around this is to what extent standards of bioethics within the countries where these experimental treatments were developed should also be imported to the affected countries, counselling caution around the use of untested treatments. Furthermore, whilst the treatment of the disease requires the participation of international agencies, experts and technologies, it must also understand and respect the specific values and practices of Ebola victims and their families in order to be effective.

So whilst there are clear ethical dimensions to the governance of the Ebola outbreak there is also a strong scalar dimension. The successful containment and treatment of the disease depends not only on international and national cooperation, but on the micro-practices within the multiple locations of the sanitary border.

books_icon Lucy Budd, Morag Bell & Adam Warren 2011 Maintaining the sanitary border: air transport liberalisation and health security practices at UK regional airports. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36(2): 268-279.

60-world2 Nigeria fears fourth Ebola frontline after infected man lands in Lagos The Guardian, August 13

60-world2 WHO: Ebola ‘an international emergency’BBC News, August 8

60-world2 Dan O’Connor Terrifying as the Ebola epidemic is, we must not use our research ethics The Guardian, August 14

Badgers, borderlands and biosecurity

By Helen Pallett

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Picture credit: Paul Farmer

Concerns about the threats to food and agricultural systems, and to well-loved landscapes and green spaces, from animal and plant diseases have been an ongoing theme in Britain for many years, and have received much media coverage in recent weeks. This media coverage has focussed largely on the eventual and much-debated piloting of the badger cull by the UK Government, aimed at reducing the spread of Bovine Tuberculosis and therefore ameliorating its effects on cattle and the resulting financial losses for farmers. The spread of ash dieback and other tree diseases have also been an area of increasing interest throughout the year, quietly simmering in media coverage and public discourse. Not to mention frequent discussions of swine flu, bird flu and other potential human pandemics.

A key point of contention in the  media coverage of the badger cull is the extent to which the policy can be justified by the current scientific evidence (for example, see here). And indeed this has long been the terms on which this debate has rested in government. Furthermore, substantial efforts to collect the necessary data to justify or rule out that badger cull policy, including the controlled trials overseen by Lord Krebs in the 1990s, have proved inconclusive, or have been claimed by both sides of the debate as evidence in their favour. In many corners of the media, the scientific evidence is seen as insufficient to draw firm conclusions on the likely effectiveness of a cull or even to determine baseline figures such as the number of badgers in an area in order to assess the outcomes of the current pilot.

A recent paper by Steve Hinchliffe and colleagues in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, has gone further than challenging merely the evidential basis for such approaches to dealing with the spread of disease, by questioning the very assumptions about and geometries of disease on which they rest. The destruction of ‘pathological’ badgers and infected trees are both illustrative of attempts to contain the spread of disease; to limit the geographical extension of diseased, unhealthy bodies. For Hinchliffe and colleagues this approach has a distinctive and fixed geometry, which they argue is out-dated and misguided.

The authors offer three critiques of enclosure as a practice of biosecurity. Firstly, they contend that borders between different species, environments and geographical areas are necessarily permeable for “life to live”. They act as contact points which can be enriching as well as threatening. Secondly, they argue that the containment of life is no guarantee of safety as there can be multiple threats to biosecurity from within any given population or group. Finally, Hinchliffe and colleagues critique the theories of disease on which approaches to containment are based, with their assumptions that disease occurs when new pathogens cross into a population. They argue, in contrast that disease does not always emerge from outside of population, but rather is often already present, emerging instead through a complex set of mutations and translations.

As a result these authors advocate an understanding of and approach to disease which recognises the existence of pathogens in all forms of life. For them it is most important to be aware on a much more fine-grained level of how different organisms circulate, through trade and other forms of travel, and how they are entangled in relationships with other species and populations in different ways and with different levels of intensity. This fine-grained analysis would be likely to recommend  localised ways of dealing with the problems of Bovine tuberculosis or Ash dieback which are based on a detailed understand of multi-species interactions, in contrast to the national level policies based on large data sets which are currently pursued. They would advocate an approach not about building and securing borders, but exploring the rich interactions occurring in the borderland’s of our food and trade systems.

books_icon Steve Hinchliffe, John Allen, Stephanie Lavau, Nick Bingham & Simon Carter, 2013 Biosecurity and the topologies of infected life: from borderlines to borderlands Transactions of the Society of British Geographers  38 531-543

60-world2 Badger cull: first photo of shot animal emerges The Guardian, 16 September

60-world2 In pursuing the badger cull, the government is being anti-science The Guardian, 26 August

60-world2 Badger cull: key questions answered The Guardian, 27 August

60-world2 Somerset badger cull numbers quizzed in the commons BBC News, 13 September

60-world2 Ash dieback spreads to Minehead woodland BBC News, 13 September

Stop Horsing Around – Governance of the Meat Industry, Consumer Confidence and the Blame Game

Jen Dickie

Basashi (raw horsemeat) from Towada. Photograph taken by Richard W.M. Jones and released under the GFDL. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.On the 15th January the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) published a report stating that horse and pig DNA had been detected in beefburger products available from retail outlets in Ireland.  The FSAI reported that whilst the presence of pig DNA had a plausible, although clearly still unacceptable, explanation –cross contamination in meat processing plants, there was no reasonable explanation for the presence of horsemeat.

Since then, the ‘horsemeat scandal’ has dominated our headlines with a steady stream of shocking revelations about the meat industry and its regulations, supply chains and possible links to the criminal underworld.  The timeline of findings and events published by the UK Food Standards Agency demonstrates not only the extent and seriousness of the investigation, but the unfolding complexity and (to some) the surprising lack of transparency of the meat industry.  What is clear, however, is that as the number of products testing positive for horse DNA rise, consumer confidence is plummeting and accusations of blame are flying. 

Whilst Felicity Lawrence provides an ‘essential guide to the horsemeat scandal’ in The Guardian, explaining the involvement of Europe in our meat supply chains in particular, Reuters report on the “accusations, denials and threats to sue (that) reverberated round Europe on Friday as meat traders, food processors, retailers and governments all rejected blame”.  However, as the pressure on Governments to act grows and claims of mis-labelling, negligence and fraud ricochet across Europe, Reuters describe how the accused believe they are being used as scapegoats for the politicians who are struggling to explain these breaches in food safety controls.     

As the saga continues, and questions are raised about how this substantial quality control failure has been allowed to happen, the meat industry will find itself under increasing scrutiny.  In a timely article for The Geographical Journal, Laura Devaney provides interesting insight to the operating logics, performance and impact of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (the institution that first reported the presence of horsemeat in beef products) since its formation 10 years ago.  Using interviews with food industry stakeholders, Devaney highlights the “dynamic coexistence of both neoliberal and biosecurity agendas” in the work of the FSAI, which reflect the “new ways of securitising food… (that attempt to) protect society and allow it to prosper, but enable the deregulated free trade of safe food”.  However, Devaney also discusses the conflict between the neoliberal agendas that promote self-regulation in the food industry and the biosecurity measures related to ensuring public health and food safety.  It is this conflict that appears to be the key component in the current horsemeat scandal.  

In these times of economic austerity the demand for cheap, mass-produced processed food has grown, it is therefore not a surprise that the complex nature of supply chains and the de-regulation of the food industry have been taken advantage of.  As always, ‘lessons will be learned’ from this latest food scare but in the meantime, instead of pointing the finger of blame, regulations need to be tightened and consumer confidence regained.

books_icon Laura Devaney, 2013, Spaces of security, surveillance and food safety: interrogating perceptions of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland’s governing technologies, power and performance, The Geographical Journal, DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12001

60-world2 Horsemeat scandal: the essential guide, The Guardian, 15th February 2013

60-world2 Horsemeat blame game ricochets across Europe, Reuters, 15th February 2013

60-world2 Timeline on horse meat issue, The Food Standards Agency, accessed on 19th February 2013

60-world2 FSAI Survey Finds Horse DNA in Some Beef Burger Products, Food Safety Authority of Ireland, accessed on 19th February 2013

Pests, Pathogens and Passports

By Jen Dickie

Entrance to Saltby Estate Dairy Farm.  Biosecurity measures to protect the cattle in this large dairy farm against foot and mouth.  This image is owned by Kate Jewell and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. If you have ever visited Australia you will have experienced a force to be reckoned with- the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service; woe betide anyone who forgets the piece of fruit squashed at the bottom of their hand luggage!  Few places exist where the importance of biosecurity is more prominent to the general public than in Australia’s airports where strict regulations are imposed on the importation of food, plant material and animal products to minimise the risk of exotic pests and diseases entering the country.  Whilst public awareness campaigns of biosecurity issues are common in Australia, in the UK it appears that both public and governmental awareness only increase after the damage has been done.

Over the last few weeks, Chalara fraxinea, or ash dieback as it is commonly known, has dominated the news.  This virulent fungal disease is thought to have hitched a lift with imported saplings from Europe and has already been confirmed in over 80 locations (Forestry Commission, 5th Nov).  Patrick Barkham from The Guardian questions whether more could have been done to prevent this outbreak and criticises the government for the “apparently sluggish response” to the disease.  As fears grow over the future of our woodlands, more threats from foreign pathogens to our native species are coming out of the woodwork, with Robin McKie from The Observer warning that the Scots pine “could be the next casualty of a ‘tidal wave’ of tree diseases”.

However, it is not just the plant kingdom that is under threat.  The controversial badger cull to prevent the spread of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) has recently been discussed in parliament.  In an article for The Geographical Journal, Gareth Enticott, Alex Franklin and Steven Van Winden explore different biosecurity strategies and behaviours practiced by farmers in response to bTB.  Their findings suggest that the promotion of biosecurity to farmers should draw on locally situated practices and knowledge rather than taking a standardised approach.  They argue that policy-makers need to “re-evaluate the purpose of disease control and their approaches to it”.

It has taken a series of pest and disease outbreaks for the seriousness of the UK’s biosecurity to hit the headlines.  Lessons can be learned from the Australian approach but as more reports emerge, claiming that the government was aware of the ash dieback invasion three years ago, perhaps more focus is needed on biosecurity risk assessments rather than on mitigation efforts once the problem has taken hold.

 Gareth Enticott, Alex Franklin and Steven Van Winden, 2012, Biosecurity and food security: spatial strategies for combating bovine tuberculosis in the UK, The Geographical Journal, DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4959.2012.00475.x

 Scots pine could be next casualty of a ‘tidal wave’ of tree diseases, The Observer, 3 November 2012

 The ash tree crisis: a disaster in the making, The Guardian, 30 October 2012

 Badger cull: MPs vote 147 to 28 for abandoning cull entirely, The Guardian,  25th October 2012

 Ash disease found in Essex and Kent, Forestry Commission, 5th November 2012

The Geographical Journal Content Alert: Volume 177, Issue 4 (December 2011)

The latest issue of The Geographical Journal is available on Wiley Online Library.

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