Foot & Mouth - An American Perspective

Tue, 01 May 2001
Emma Brockes

Friday April 13, 2001 The Guardian

We enter Leicester Square at noon, posing in white coats as researchers from the "British Tourist Centre". I carry a clipboard, and my colleague Neil Chatterjee lugs a tray of mildewy gas masks hired from an army surplus shop in north London. Our intention is to find out how American tourists perceive the foot and mouth crisis by asking them questions, then offering them a gas mask. Will we be instantly rumbled as pranksters? Or will the white coats and monstrous respirators fit so neatly into the visitors' view of Britain that they pass unnoticed?

First up is Wade from Oklahoma. He is standing with his elderly parents in a queue for West End theatre tickets. With impeccable manners, Wade pretends not to notice the lab coats and breathing apparatus - or at least fails to ask what we, tourism researchers, might be doing with them. Wade made a will shortly before coming to Britain. Yes, he says, he was warned about the dangers of the British countryside. "You have all sorts of venereal disease out there," he says kindly. "And, of course, hoof and mouth." Because of the rumours, he and his parents haven't ventured beyond zone 6 of the London underground. "You get bloated," says Wade's mum. "Then you run through the streets screaming." And how does one contract the disease? "They don't tell us," says Wade, darkly. "But we know not to eat brain." Each would be prepared to suffer a short period of quarantine before returning to the US, although not in a British hospital. As we part, Wade's dad winks and tips me a dollar.

Outside the National Portrait Gallery, Janis and Cari from Washington consider the question: "Would you feel safe drinking British milk?" They have shown a thorough knowledge of BSE as well as foot and mouth, and are aware that the latter doesn't affect humans. None the less, Janis, an account executive, has grave doubts about British dairy products. "In the US, milk is, like, 2% fat," she says, skilfully conflating issues. "But you all drink whole milk. So I would probably avoid it." I ask them what they would do if they saw a cow behaving strangely. "We would tell someone," says Cari confidently. What about a sheep? "Same thing." And a pigeon? "Well, I keep parakeets," says Cari, "so I'm quite familiar with bird behaviour. If I saw a pigeon acting strangely in Trafalgar Square, I would definitely contact the authorities. You remember that puppy we found in Fort Worth, Janis? I always try to help sick animals."

This is Neil's cue to step forward with the gas masks. "What's this?" asks Janis. It's a promotion, I say. Free gas masks for foreign visitors. The two women eye them suspiciously. Janis reaches for a rubber strap and, coming down on the side of like, immediately brightens. "Cool!" she says. "Can I really have one?" Sadly I am forced to reply: no, it is just a little Tourist Centre joke.

And so we adjourn to Trafalgar Square, where, before we can approach any tourists, Neil and I are rounded on by a bouncer in a neon vest known as a "heritage warden". Blinking rapidly, he tries to locate our behaviour within the framework of civil disobedience. "What's this?" he asks, scrutinising the masks for signs of illegal trading. I give him the Tourist Centre line. "You're asking people about foot and mouth disease?" he repeats slowly, eyes narrowing. Yes, I reply. Thinking about it for a moment, he concludes: "That's for a newspaper, isn't it?" The warden has rumbled us, and while he radios his supervisor with news of "two journalists carrying questionnaires and, er, gas masks", we make a dash for it up the steps, across three lanes of traffic and smack into a garment-centre executive and her family, from New York.

It is inevitable, in a survey such as this, that you will at some stage stub your toe against a very smart kid. Ben is it. The 13-year-old answers our questions with the authority of one who reads the foreign papers online. "It's airborne," he says precociously. "But you can also spread it by foot." And what are the symptoms? "You start acting crazy - but that's only for mad cow disease. Foot and mouth can't hurt humans." He looks at me with wonder. "You didn't know that?" I ask if the US could ever succumb to such an epidemic. Ben's unblinking blue eyes grow wide and grave. "People are very ignorant and stubborn in America. Sure it could happen." "Especially with George Bush as president," his mother chips in with a flippancy lost on her son, who, with thankful recourse to childishness, has pulled on one of the gas masks and can be heard exclaiming "Cool!" through the muffled rubber. Thoroughly unnerved, I move on by taxi to the queue outside Madame Tussaud's.

Here I find Nick and Julie from Minnesota. Nick is a windscreen technician; Julie works in an accounts department. Since arriving in Britain 10 days ago, the couple have drunk only bottled water - nothing to do with the farming crisis, which Julie mistakenly perceives as some kind of tourist attraction. "Foot and mouth?" she says. "Oh no. We figured there's enough to do in the countryside without getting into that. We're not planning a special visit." Um, what about foot and mouth the highly contagious disease, I venture. "Is that the one where you have to burn your shoes?" asks Julie, but before we can get to the bottom of it, a Tussaud's steward has thrown me out of the queue. "Would you like a gas mask?" I ask hopefully, as we're ushered away. Julie gives me a very cold look. "No."

And so, finally, to Paddington station, where we are just in time to meet Amy and Carly, from Maryland, off the Heathrow Express. They are wilting under the weight of their backpacks, but energised enough to tell me about the time Amy's mum came to Britain and got sick from the water. "As a nurse," says Amy, "I obviously have to know about this foot and mouth stuff." Carly, a student, nods approvingly. "The key thing is to wash your hands. That is the best - the only - way to avoid getting it." Carly clears her throat. "Don't eat the beef!" she adds unexpectedly. I ask how a person knows if they've got the disease. "You get a rash around your mouth," says Amy. "That kind of thing." Carly opens her mouth to protest, but is silenced by her friend. "I'm a nurse," says Amy, chuckling. "I should know!" The offer of a gas mask prompts Amy to pat my arm. "Bless your heart," she says, apparently touched, and, shaking her head at the endless sweetness of the Brits, looks about for an exit.

Foot in mouth? Our survey said . . .

These are some of the questions Emma Brockes asked Americans in her survey, with a selection of their replies:

How do you think foot and mouth disease is contracted?

"You catch it by touching cows' feet. You can stroke the rump, but if you make contact with the actual hoof, you're in trouble."

Marian, high-school physics teacher, New York

"The air conditioning. Also, if you touch your mouth a lot without washing your hands first."

Carly, student, Maryland

"From eating bad beef or lamb, or walking across farmland."

Kelly, marketing assistant, Chicago

What are the symptoms of foot and mouth disease?

"You get really bad blisters on your feet and some swelling around the neck area."

Mary, maths teacher, Chicago

"You start to drool and shake your head a lot. You might feel a little dizzy."

Pamela, administrative assistant, Wisconsin

"Nausea, dizziness, headaches. You would probably start vomiting a lot."

Kelly, marketing manager, Chicago

"You get very big and bloated."

Nancy, retired, Oklahoma

"You start acting crazy."

Cate, executive, New York

"Humans can't catch it, but the cow starts to feel nauseous - that much I know."

Jim, fireman, California

What precautions should you take before entering the British countryside and after you've arrived there?

"If you're taking an animal for a walk, you should stick to one side of the street. Never cross the street with an animal during an epidemic."

Wade, consultant, Oklahoma

"When you're in the countryside, always stay on the sidewalk. You have to walk through things, both ways, to make sure you're clean."

Rocky, social worker, Missouri

"Don't visit a zoo before you go and don't pick the flowers when you get there, because they could be infected."

Julie, accountant, Minnesota

"You should probably stay on the coach."

Cate, executive, New York

What is the best time of day to disinfect yourself?

"In the evening, after a shower."

Janis, account executive, Washington

"I would say in the morning, when you've just got up and are still fresh."

Kelly, marketing assistant, Chicago

Is it safe to drink the water in Britain, and if you fell ill would you be happy to use a British hospital?

"The hospitals, sure, but I'm not certain about the water. As a precaution I've been boiling it since I got here."

Barbara, high-school principal, Virginia

"We only drink bottled water in Britain, but we clean our teeth with water from the tap. Will we be OK?"

Diane, sales assistant, California

"An English hospital is better than nothing, but only just. I've read about your cleanliness and sanitation. I guess if I was dying I'd take my chances, but I'd rather be flown back to the States. Still, I think it's a wonderful country you have here and I intend to come back."

Marian, high-school physics teacher, New York