MR Derek Foster, MP, was due to meet agriculture minister Mr Nick Brown yesterday afternoon to discuss his continuing concern that the operation to combat foot-and-mouth needs to be improved, particularly in County Durham.

The meeting came as local farming leaders expressed their fears to government epidemiologist Ms Pat Sellers that Durham would become another Cumbria if culling was not speeded up.

Mr Foster, whose Bishop Auckland constituency has 17 confirmed FMD cases, told the D&S Times he would press Mr Brown for improvements in the animal welfare scheme, in which 1.6m animals waiting to be slaughtered were presenting a major problem.

He said he would urge the minister to carry out the culling process on contiguous farms at the same time as those on infected farms.

His comments pleased NFU local branch secretary Mr Phil Barber, who said Ms Sellers had told them the government had the disease under control and it was going to fade away.

"She based that on the premise that animals were being slaughtered within 24 hours, and contiguous ones in 48 hours," said Mr Barber.

"She seemed surprised when told that had not happened anywhere in the N-E and that MAFF was unable to give a date when it would happen.

"Senior staff in the MAFF administration seem to be in total chaos," he added.

He supported Mr Foster, who was also to voice his concern to the minister about reports that foot-and-mouth may already have reached the fells.

Mr Foster was recently on a fact-finding tour in Teesdale, meeting members of the Upper Teesdale agricultural support service (UTASS) and NFU representatives. Mr Barber said the MP had been told Teesdale was at the knife-edge.

Mr Foster paid tribute to UTASS for providing a wonderful service in upper Teesdale. "The tour was extremely useful. It gave me on the ground information from the people most affected. I will pass their concerns to the minister."

Mr Foster's ward covers 650 square miles of rural land, sustaining some 1,000 farmers and 1m sheep, a total way above the national average.

As well as meeting Mr Foster, Mr Barber had been part of a delegation for the N-E that met secretary of state Joyce Quin - with whom they had discussed operational problems - and Nick Brown, where wider issues such as vaccination had been on the agenda.

Mr Brown said vaccination was extremely complicated and would disrupt the ability to sell the product, with a lot of manufacturers putting money into a brand image. Once they had vaccinated, there was no going back.

Mr Barber had also visited the new MAFF operations unit at Newcastle. "But no lessons have been learnt from previous errors," he said.

l Other foot-and-mouth reports on pages 13 and 14.

l At 10.30 yesterday morning there were 1,027 confirmed cases of FMD including 54 in County Durham, 25 in Northumberland, nine in Yorkshire and 418 in Cumbria