A CUTTING-edge method of disinfecting vehicles to curb the spread of foot-and-mouth will be launched by a Herefordshire agricultural company on Monday.

Thousands of farmers across Britain look set to benefit from the product, which disinfects the undersides of vehicles using a small, low-voltage, self-contained pump and spray system, automatically triggered by electronic sensors as the vehicle approaches.

It has been designed by agricultural engineering lecturers at Herefordshire College of Technology.

"Currently, farmers and landowners concerned about the spread of foot-and-mouth are using straw or a matting material covered in disinfectant to help prevent the spread of the disease," said head of agricultural engineering, Curwen Davies, who came up with the idea.

"However, the straw can become contaminated by mud and rain which can dilute and wash away the disinfectant, reducing its effectiveness."

Hundreds of farmers across Worcestershire and Hereford-shire have laid down disinfected straw padding in the belief it will remove the virus from cars and lorries on their land.

But on Thursday, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, admitted the mats were almost useless.

The announcement came after an examination of a report into the mistakes made during the last epidemic in 1967.

The Northumberland inquiry concluded then that not only did the disinfected padding or straw not work, but they instilled a "false sense of security".

"The only effective measure for people or vehicles who have come into contact with livestock is a thorough spraying or scrubbing with a Government-approved disinfectant," said the Government spokesman.

Mr Davies said the steri-grid, as it is being called, disinfected the whole of the underside of the vehicle, not just the tyres, using spray nozzles.

Sanitised foam mats are used in place of straw matting, which soak up the excess disinfectant.

"The equipment can be situated virtually anywhere and is almost operator and maintenance free," said Mr Davies.

"We designed it primarily in response to the foot-and-mouth outbreak but there is the potential for it to be used more widely by other people who are dealing with animals or with food products."

The product, which uses environmentally-friendly, MAFF-approved, citric acid-based disinfectant, will be marketed by agricultural machinery manufacturer Votex, who will pay a royalty to Hereford-shire College of Technology.

However, Mr Davies stands to receive nothing.

A spokesperson for MAFF in Worcester, meanwhile, said it was an interesting concept.

"It is difficult to comment without having seen the invention, or knowing how it would perform under field conditions.

"But it certainly sounds a very interesting concept," said the spokeswoman.