No evidence has been found that the foot-and-mouth outbreak has its source in Northern Ireland, the province’s top veterinary officer said today.
Amid warnings of dire consequences for farmers, the Government has already banned all UK livestock and dairy products after the virus was discovered at an abattoir in Essex.
But Northern Ireland Chief Veterinary Officer Robert McCracken said clinical examinations carried out on three Ulster farms which delivered to the abattoir have failed to detect any evidence of the disease.
"‘We have now carried out a clinical examination on all three farms and we have found no evidence of foot and mouth disease, so that gives us hope," he said.
Although further samples taken have yet to be examined, concerns that the source of the virus had its origins in the province now looks ‘‘much less likely’’, he added.
Stormont Agriculture Minister Brid Rodgers struck a similar note of guarded caution that Northern Ireland ‘‘may well be in the clear’’.
"But the picture is not totally clear yet and should be clear within the next day or two," she added.
"I hope we will be able to get back to normal trading whenever the source of the infection is established clearly and that particular region or area, wherever it may be, is restricted."
Ulster Farmers Union chief Douglas Rowe also hinted that the foot-and-mouth outbreak threatening the industry may not have its source in Northern Ireland.
But as he prepared for an emergency meeting with Agriculture Minister Nick Brown in London, UFU president Mr Rowe urged against ‘‘hysterical’’ reaction.
"We would have a hunch, and I wouldn’t put it any stronger than that, that it will be found somewhere else," he said.
"But this is a very bitter disease, can travel long distances and is very easily spread among animals, so its source could be found virtually anywhere.
"That is a major task for those involved in it to find the source."
Mr Rowe stressed that the outbreak posed no problems to human health.
"This is an animal welfare problem. This is a whammy to the farming industry, but it is nothing of no concern to the consumers."
"It’s very important for Northern Ireland that we don’t take any hysterical reactions, that we make sure that there is no over-movement of cattle or livestock around the province, that we don’t do anything foolish, until we are 100% certain that we don’t have it.
"And then we must be very careful that we don’t allow it to come in from the mainland, from wherever the source is."