Current bTB policy delivery - is it a failure?
Every policy and action of government must have a reason. Defra offers diverse reasons in its publications, the only consistency being that they are significantly different in every document. They attempt to justify many of these reasons with circular, self-fulfilling arguments. We will consider the version in Defra’s ‘Bovine Tuberculosis Evidence Plan’ entitled ‘Protect the health of the public and maintain public confidence in the safety of products entering the food chain.’
This seems a powerful and compelling argument until the evidence is considered. Defra and the Health Protection Agency admit that the risk of humans catching Bovine TB from meat is negligible. So negligible that potentially infected cattle slaughtered after failing a TB test, and cattle found at abattoirs to be infected, are sold for human consumption (with any TB lesions, which happen to be visible, removed).
Defra and the Health Protection Agency admit pasteurisation of milk kills M. bovis bacteria, removing any danger of infection. Raw milk is only sold from TB free herds.
Slaughtering animals because they might develop a disease for which vaccination is possible is hardly conducive to their welfare, particularly when the test and slaughter policy relies, (as we shall highlight), on an inaccurate, if not dysfunctional test. ‘Meet our international (in particular EU) and domestic legal commitments and maintain the UK’s reputation for safe and high quality food,’ and ‘Maintain productive and sustainable beef and dairy sectors in England securing opportunities for international trade and minimising environmental impacts.’
- Fails on policy
- Fails under scrutiny
- Fails on delivery
The UK’s reputation for safe and high quality food is not enhanced by a failed policy. The present policy is doing nothing to make farming productive, rather the opposite. How such a policy can be sustainable or minimize environmental impacts is a complete mystery.
Trade with EU countries is often cited in this context. The relevant EU provisions only affect export of live cattle, not meat and dairy products. Since the BSE ban was lifted, live cattle exports have never exceeded £3.3 million in annual value 8. This controversial trade (which includes large numbers of calves sold at low prices for rearing in continental veal crates) is hardly worth over £100 million of taxpayers’ money spent every year on Bovine TB control.
We need to reduce the cost of Bovine TB to farmers and taxpayers. Ask any farmer what the cost of Bovine TB is and he will say testing, culling and movement restrictions, imposed by the present policy. A policy aimed at reducing the cost would introduce better and cheaper ways of managing and preventing disease, such as those we consider in our conclusion.
We hold that not one of the diverse and ever changing reasons put forward by Defra stands examination.
However, UK policy is ultimately driven by the EU requiring member states to eradicate Bovine TB and laying down the precise means to be used, along with prohibition of vaccination.
No specific reasons for EU Bovine TB policy can be found, except those for the overall Community Animal Health Policy which covers a multitude of diseases, including Bovine TB. The reasons stated for the Community Animal Health Policy 10 are similar to those used by Defra in respect of Bovine TB, and just as irrelevant to Bovine TB.
Not one of the reasons for EU policy stands examination either.
For any government to intervene in private or business affairs, and in particular to take and kill livestock, there must be a sound justification rooted in the common good. No such justification has been advanced.
Over the period 1998 - 2009 the number of new herd incidents in Great Britain increased by 276%, and the number of cattle consequently culled, increased by a staggering 477%. Defra states that; “The causes of the long-term increase in bTB in GB are not well understood as there are likely to be many factors involved”.
In other words Defra does not know why there has been a dramatic long term increase, or why Bovine TB policy has failed.
To avoid confusion, we use the term ‘official TB free status', which correctly describes a state of very low incidence of Bovine TB. This is the best the test and cull policy could ever achieve. Defra uses the term ‘eradication’ to mean the same. However, ‘eradication’, used in a scientific or veterinary context such as this, means extermination of an infectious agent so that no further cases of the related disease can occur. Only two diseases have ever been eradicated; smallpox and rinderpest, the latter being a cattle disease. Both were eradicated using vaccination.
The ‘skin test’ is compromised by three major shortcomings.
The devastating effect of Bovine TB is not the effect of the disease; it is the effect of the Bovine TB eradication policy. This policy has failed, producing limited, if any, results and causing severe human and animal welfare problems, at enormous cost to the taxpayer.
The policy is not only ineffective, it is far worse than the disease.
How current policy is delivered?
Under the current UK ‘test and cull’ policy, cattle are tested at intervals determined by risk of infection. Those that fail the test are slaughtered and severe restrictions on cattle movement are placed on the farm.
In the test primarily used in the UK, a small amount of tuberculin (a sterile extract obtained from a culture of M. bovis) is injected into the animal. A swelling will occur if the animal has previously been challenged by, and the immune system has reacted to, tuberculosis bacteria.
However, reactions of the animal’s immune system to other types of mycobacteria can also cause the swelling. To reduce the number of false diagnoses this would lead to, a preparation of M. avian, the avian form of tuberculosis, is injected nearby. M. avian is widely present in the environment. It is not harmful to cattle, although their immune system reacts to it.
The swellings are compared after 72 hours. Statistical studies, rather than an understanding of the underlying biological mechanism, have indicated that if the M. bovis swelling is significantly larger than the M. avian swelling, a reaction to M. bovis has occurred. The animal is then deemed to be a ‘reactor’ and killed.
This test is known as the ‘skin test’ (or more properly as the single intradermal comparative cervical tuberculin test).
A blood test, the gamma interferon test, is also used on some occasions as an ancillary test. It evaluates the same immune response but is conducted in the laboratory. There are documented cases of wildly differing results from using the two tests on the same herd.
If an animal fails either the skin or blood tests it is slaughtered.
Serious concerns (many of which we will explain on this website) exist among scientists and farmers about the accuracy of the tests, while Defra goes as far as to admit the tests are ‘imperfect’.*
* See page 13 of this document
Test and cull does not work
After sixty painful and expensive years of testing and slaughtering cattle, and an intervening period of relatively few incidents of Bovine TB, we are again several decades from any chance of ‘official TB free’ status. As the Bovine TB Advisory Group concluded in its final report to Defra **
“Bovine TB has been a difficult and demanding problem for many years. There are reasons for believing that it can be controlled and finally eradicated but this will require a long-term commitment by all stakeholders and take at least 20 years.”
Can we afford the cost and will farmers tolerate another 20 years of movement restrictions, disruptive and inaccurate testing and compulsory cattle culling?
** See page 4 of this document