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Is it time for a Rethink of Bovine TB Policy?

 Added by  becky
 27 Jun 2011, 5:52 PM

The new think tank group 'Rethink bTB' has launched its campaign and published its first discussion paper, 'Bovine TB; is it time for a radical rethink?' Comments have been invited on its contents and a second, updated version is likely to be available soon. The paper stresses the consequences of of relying on the imperfect skin test.
Defra says the existing test wrongly condemns only one animal in a thousand. But even if that is right, the Rethink campaign says that would have meant 4,899 false positives in 2009 – a fifth of the 24,924 cattle condemned. Similarly, the campaign argues, the combination of flaws in the Defra strategy suggest it misses one infected animal in every five or six.
The Rethink paper concludes that, “The effect of the policy is worse than the disease. Whatever aspect is considered – farming profit, cost effectiveness, animal welfare, human health, conservation or food security – current policy is a resounding failure. Much of the compensation paid to farmers is for healthy cattle that were unlikely to develop bovine TB or would have been slaughtered in the normal course of farm production long before any symptoms developed.”
The campaign says a combination of vaccination and sensible culling would be cheaper and less stressful all round. See www.rethinkbtb.org
See also Yorkshire Post report dated 27 June 2011
http://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/country-view/farming/campaign_call_for_rethink_on_tb_policy_1_3516463 and podcast at http://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/country-view/farming/country_week_programme_has_defra_been_getting_it_wrong_on_tb_for_60_yea...

Farmers are now having to contend with even more regulations. The Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency has confirmed that the policy which allows for farms that have their Officially Tuberculosis Free status withdrawn to restock their herds has been changed. - see below. The NFU has reacted angrily after farmers were left in the dark over new and complex changes to rules governing livestock movements under TB restrictions. Surely the NFU should be pushing for farmers to be able to use the BCG vaccination for cattle without further delay?
All herds that have an Officially TB Free Status Withdrawn breakdown will now have to wait until they have completed their first Short Interval Test (SIT) after 60 days of the reactor animal leaving the farm or being suitably isolated. In order to regain Officially TB free status it is necessary for herds with OTFW status to test clear at two consecutive short interval tests at no less than 60 day intervals.
In the past when farmers have been suffering from an OTFW breakdown it has been possible to continue to move cattle into isolated facilities on completion of a veterinary risk assessment, without having to wait for a SIT. The new AHVLA rules mean that this can no longer happen.
These changes occur following recommendations by the EU Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) following a recent audit of TB controls in England. It is felt that herds that have disease confirmed (OTFW) pose a greater risk of disease transmission and therefore further assessment of the disease levels in the herd must be gained.
As well as representing a risk from an animal welfare perspective the taxpayer is liable for the payment of compensation for animals removed as TB reactors, to increase the number of animals at risk from disease is an unnecessary risk for the taxpayer to be required to bear. Following the completion of the first SIT it is possible to have greater confidence that infection has been removed from the herd.
In order for England to get its Eradication Programme approved by the EU it is therefore necessary for AHVLA to make these changes; as to not have done so would have risked the EU not approving the Eradication Programme and the loss of EU grant funding.
The FVO recommended that no herd should be able to buy in cattle until they had their first clear SIT (no reactors or inconclusive reactors) however the NFU said this situation was unacceptable and in large parts of the country and would be unsustainable for the industry. It was therefore agreed that following a SIT where reactors or IRs are found, cattle could be moved onto the holding after a satisfactory veterinary risk assessment has been carried out and it can be proved that animals moving onto the holding will be kept isolated. This will ensure that there is no increase in the disease transmission risk.
Information from www.farmersguardian.com/home/livestock/ahvla-announces-tightening-of-tb-movement-rules/44800.article

We have been sent the link for an article by the Ecologist at The conclusion is interesting.
'Of course, one revolutionary but effective solution could be for the UK to nullify its agricultural trade tries, vaccinate the herds and retain all of our beef for domestic consumption. Our farmers could enjoy not having to compete with cheaper continental imports and instead produce slow-grown quality beef for British consumers.'
Interesting admissions from Winnipeg official below (from article at www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/bovine-tb-a-persistent-foe-138186179.html Blood test for bTB is not accurate and it isn't such a catastrophic disease - and then not good enough reasons given for current insistence for eradication ...
If a blood analysis comes back TB-positive -- the correct term is "suspicious" since it's not 100 per cent accurate -- the animal is tracked down and destroyed, and its lymph nodes are removed and shipped to Ottawa for a lengthier culture test. If negative, the GPS is programmed to unbuckle the collar on a certain date and drop to the forest floor. It's another one of Grzela's jobs to track down and retrieve those GPS collars.
In some ways, bovine TB isn't so catastrophic a disease. The animals can live for many years before symptoms even begin to appear. And it's generally only in older animals (elk can live up to 20 years). Any risk to humans from eating the meat is very low, although it's not recommended.
The problem is, "It's hard to detect and hard to get rid of," said Doug Bergeson, Parks Canada ecosystem scientist.
DEFRA has been forced to suspend publication of its bovine TB disease statistics due to major IT failings that are causing chaos for farmers and vets. The new IT system has been blighted with technical issues since its introduction last year.
According to the Farmers Guardian (www.farmersguardian.com/home/livestock/defra-tb-stats-delayed-due-to-it-chaos/44436.article) TB test results are having to be manually inputted, a slow process that is delaying the collection of reactors, preventing some farmers from exporting cattle and creating a paperwork ‘confusion’.
Some farmers are receiving no paperwork at all in relation to their tests, while others are receiving excessive amounts that are ‘contradictory and make no sense’, according to farmers in hotspot areas.
If the existing programme is so reliant on IT then yet another reason for a complete overhaul of the system.
http://veterinaryrecord.bmj.com/content/early/2012/01/10/vr.100079.short?rss=1 Report re Farmers' confidence in vaccinating badgers against bovine tuberculosis. This survey provided a total of 341 responses with a response rate of 80 per cent. Interestingly armers did not reveal high levels of trust in the Government to manage bTB policy or badger vaccination. It is clearly time for a re-think.
Interesting extract reproduced below from a comment piece in current Land mag by Ed Hamer (Winter 11/12 www.thelandmagazine.org.uk).
The Great Bovine TB Cover Up
Interestingly TB infection poses little health risk to today’s cows within an economic lifespan of three to five years. The reason we’re pursuing TB eradication is because we’re signed up to a European Agricultural Policy with a zero tolerance approach to TB infection. As far back as 1958, the argument was made that an unhealthy cow is an unproductive cow, and does not represent maximum efficiency for farmers, or more importantly, for the taxpayer who is subsidising them.
As a result an EU eradication policy was decided upon and compulsory TB testing of cattle was introduced to the UK in 1959. Remarkably little has changed since then. Every farm in the country is routinely tested for Bovine TB on a one to four year cycle. If a farm is found to have a TB “reactor” it is removed and killed, and the farm is re-tested every 60 days until tests show that the infection hasn’t spread throughout the herd. During this time no cattle are allowed to be moved onto, or from the farm – with added costs incurred by the farmer. In return farmers get favourable compensation for every “reactor” that is killed. The whole process is highly bureaucratic, unpopular with farmers and currently costs UK taxpayers £90 million per year.
In order to justify this level of spending DEFRA first and foremost claims to be “protecting public health and maintaining public confidence in the safety of products entering the food chain”. This despite the fact that the UK Health Protection Agency has concluded that (excepting unpasteurised milk) “the current risk posed by M. bovis (Bovine TB) to human health in the UK is considered negligible”. In fact there is so little concern that, following an autopsy, “reactor” cattle simply enter the food chain in the UK anyway.
DEFRA’s second argument is that an eradication policy “protects and promotes the health and welfare of animals”. However if this was really the objective, wouldn’t we simply vaccinate against the infection? Well, no - although a bTB vaccine is widely available, a vaccinated cow cannot be distinguished from a TB carrier once it arrives on the continent and so, incredibly, the vaccine is prohibited by EU law. Instead DEFRA’s third and final argument that we are “meeting international and domestic legal commitments and securing opportunities for international trade”, perhaps hits the nail on the head.
The UK is legally bound by both international and bilateral commitments relating to trade in agricultural goods and services. Yes, these agreements allow us to make the most of our competitive advantage for producing livestock. But they also relegate livestock and farm produce to the status of any other commodity traded in pre-determined volumes. As a direct result we’re currently spending £90 million a year protecting a live export industry which has never exceeded £3.3 million in annual revenue since the BSE export ban was lifted in 1998.
Of course, one revolutionary but effective solution could be for the UK to nullify its agricultural trade ties, vaccinate the herds and retain our beef for domestic consumption. UK farmers could enjoy not having to compete with cheaper continental imports, and instead produce slow-grown quality beef for British consumers. And while a successful farmer may never be able to compete with a fluffy badger in the eyes of the public, the badger may well end up better off when he no longer stands between a good farmer and an honest income.
The bTB policy is very rarely challenged because of the costs, time, stress ... involved in legal actions, yet we hear from many farmers who are unhappy with the existing tests and how these are undertaken. Formal complaints are useless as cattle owners are powerless.
One farmer (Ken Jackson re his pedigree bull Boxster) did take Defra to court and won. However the saga cost a whopping £124,000 in legal fees, plus 18 months of lost business, plus time at the High Court and the stress of doing all that on a remortgage and an overdraft. Defra offered £90,000 and he has now settled for it, rather than go back to court. He did get to keep his bull. Has this case ensured more rigour in a testing procedure which is so hit and miss? There are certainly more mistakes in testing than Defra wants to admit.
Ken's daughter, Kate McNeil, played a big part in the Boxster story. She started off as a lab technician. so knew how easily a blood sample could be spoiled. She challenged Defra’s insistence that there was no reason to doubt its test on Boxster. Technicians had had difficulty getting a sample and had mixed two.
On the way to proving this was a serious error, Kate was amazed at the number of ways in which the existing ramshackle system might get it wrong. For example, the ‘skin test’ for TB, on which so much depends, amounts to the difference in the bumps made by two pinches of flesh – one before an injection of sterilised TB culture and one after. Pinches vary. Animals vary. Kate is writing a book explaining how they came to doubt almost everything the vets said was certain.
“One thing I am sure of,” she says, “is they should be taking a long hard look at the whole system.”
We do indeed need a rethink for little has changed. There is now so much emphasis on the badger we are seeing no progress in the other areas that really matter. Interesting paper from Soil Association written back in 2007 - it reveals just how little has really been done (www.bovinetb.info/docs/Soil%20Association_A%20sustainable%20strategy%20for%20tackling%20TB%20in%20cattle%20and%20badgers.pdf) originally written in 2007 and yet we are no further forward. See extracts below:
'Government must urgently move beyond polarised debate to investigate wider causes and possible solutions. The polarisation of the debate on whether or not to cull badgers has diverted vital effort and resources from investigating other factors - estimates are that £1000 has been spent for every badger killed. Defra must redirect resources into other approaches for managing the disease, which address the underlying causes of its increased occurrence, and investigate potential practical measures for reducing livestock susceptibility. Increased support should also be made available for affected farmers - given the economic and psychological impacts on farmers who have reactor herds can be devastating.'
'Official policy must shift from ‘eradicating’ disease to building positive health. Official attitudes to animal health and management of livestock
diseases tend towards eradication of target diseases from the environment (‘stamping out’) or to achieving ‘biosecure’ conditions, in which it is attempted to prevent all exposure of livestock to
potential pathogens.'
'Investigate why some farmers appear to have ‘beaten bTB’ through practical management strategies. Trace element deficiencies, especially of selenium, have been linked to the incidence of diseases, including bTB. A significant body of farmers, organic and non-organic, have remineralised’ their soils using trace elements, with apparent success in reducing susceptibility to or breaking the cycle of bTB infection.'
'Investigate why some regions remain bTB-free. There are unexplained anomalies across the UK in the presence and absence of bTB ‘hotspots’ – for example, the Cheshire Plain, a major dairying area has not been subject to widespread bTB outbreaks. Research should be directed at identifying what factors are different there to other dairying areas affected by bTB.'
'Wider husbandry issues TB in cattle or badgers, as in humans tends (but not exclusively) to affect stressed animals with suppressed immune systems – breed type, husbandry practices, housing and diet are factors that merit more research as to susceptibility and resistance. '
Yet more evidence that the system is too costly, not coping and causing farmers and civil servants even more problems as we hear that a new computer system is causing chaos to records on cattle tested for bovine tuberculosis in the South West. This has apparently resulted in farmers having herds incorrectly placed under movement restrictions. There is a backlog of more than 1,000 cases waiting to be processed.
'Local officers at the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) are trying frantically to come to terms with the new SAM system, and say they have been told not to tell customers about the computer problems', states the report from This is Devon (http://www.thisissouthdevon.co.uk/Defra-s-new-TB-bungle-revealed/story-13620836-detail/story.html). 'But when farmers have tried to complain, they have found the whole telephone system has been switched off – adding to their anguish and fears about bovine TB and their inability to trade their cattle, with the busiest time of year fast approaching'.
A major problem appears to be that, once information is logged on to the new system, it may not be changed, even if it was incorrectly input initially.
Staff at Defra say they have become disillusioned by the situation. One said: "This SAM computer system has been rubbish from the day it was introduced; not working properly, being extremely difficult and time-consuming."
He said 1,000 TB test charts had log-jammed regionally and would have to be input manually, adding: "We've been told that agency staff will be brought in to start inputting the backlog, as we've shed so many admin staff who were familiar with the system and our procedures. This is why farmers aren't getting the level of service they should.
"We're expected to lie to farmers, which is contrary to the Civil Service Code. Local office staff have been in tears over this and can't tolerate much more.
"We all make errors in transcription and with staff under huge pressure – and probably very poorly trained and inexperienced agency staff being
A Defra spokesman said: "The Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Age-ncy is in the process of rolling out additional functionality around TB testing to its core IT system. This will improve the level of service provided to customers.
"The new functionality was initially released to two offices as part of our proven process specifically designed to iden-tify and resolve any issues before wider roll-out to all offices. A number of technical issues were identified, which have since been fixed, meaning that all offices are now using the new functionality.
"During this time additional manual work-arounds have been implemented for processing test charts in order to ensure that AHVLA is able to identify and remove TB-test positive reactor animals from farms as quickly as possible. Extra staff are assisting with this work to further minimise any disruption or delays."
Information from http://www.thisissouthdevon.co.uk/Defra-s-new-TB-bungle-revealed/story-13620836-detail/story.html

Email from Prof T 20/9/11:
In the information you sent me, somewhere someone makes a point that only bTB is a chronic zoonosis which can result in life long infection of symptoms appearing many years after infection. This argument was used to suggest why bTB is such a priority.
However this is also not true. Other examples of "chronic" zoonoses that occur in the UK, create more damage to the health of the human population but are largely ignored. These include echinococcosis and (congenital) toxoplamosis. The former remains with the patient untill (s)he is treated whilst the latter is lifelong for the baby affected by it. Echinococcus can be totally eliminated if appropriate dog controls and treatments are introduced whilst toxoplasmosis could be amerliorated if some money was spend on developing suitable diagnostic tests in the food chain (meat). A carcass testing positive to toxoplasmosis could be frozen before it is consumed (freezing kills the parasite). This would effectively prevent a substantial number of the hundreds of congenital cases of toxoplasmosis that occur in the UK each year.
£100 million a year spend more appropriately could help prevent real carnage caused by other zoonoses....
He also sent an article* about Japanese woman who contracted echinococcosis whilst living in the UK and a photo of a child with congenital toxoplasmosis.
* Case Report: A Case of Pulmonary and Hepatic Cystic Echinococcosis of CE1 Stage in a Healthy Japanese Female that Was Suspected to Have Been Acquired During Her Stay in the United Kingdom by Kiwamu Nakamura, Akira Ito, Satomi Yara, Shusaku Haranaga, Kenji Hibiya,
Tsuneo Hirayasu, Yasuhito Sako, and Jiro Fujita
Email from JB 19/9/11:
I personally have no concerns about human TB rates, having looked at all the HPA stuff, and other zoonoses. Wouldn't be keen on a major rise in btb, with no controls at all in place because of the wildlife implications, but as far as I'm concerned vaccination should be on the table for all cattle (excluding live exports), and the money saved from the test and cull policy could go towards badger vaccination schemes and cattle (if so required). There might be a blip in tb rates while vaccination took effect on herds, but its much more sustainable to my mind.
Email from Prof T 19/10/11:
I just want to make a comment regarding the statement below.
The risk to humans of bTB would remain very small even if all controls were removed and there was a massive epidemic in cattle PROVIDING milk for human consumption is pasteurized. The evidence to support this comes from a series of studies in the 1930's (pre control, pre pasteurization, pre antibiotics). People with TB were institutionalised...there was a series of large (human) necropsy studies looking for the primary lesion in TB cases. In the cases of human TB (M. tuberculosis), many primary lesions were indeed in the lungs indicating aerosol spread. But in the case of M. bovis, virtually every cases had the primary lesions associated with the gastrointestinal tract, indicating foodborne (milk) transmission. This was when up to 40% of Brirtish cattle had TB. I reviewed this evidence in my article "Public health and bovine tuberculosis: what's all the fuss about?" and you can all get the details there. It is a common argument used that controls are preventing a massive human epidemic. In reality based on pre control human data, the TB programme in cattle is preventing nothing, as long as milk is pasteurized.
Email from SW 16/9/11:
As for public health significance of TB. It is of low significance at the moment, but the problem would come if controls were relaxed, when it could assume greater significance. Relaxation of controls would result in more human infections. It would be unusual to take public health action that would knowingly put more people at risk, albeit that this would remain a small number. It would also put a lot more animals, wild and domesticated, at risk, and that is probably a much more important issue, and the potential effect of that on human TB rates is unclear, but could potentially be large (if for example the infection became widespread in cats and dogs). It therefore makes sense on many levels to keep the level of bovine TB low in cattle, and thus in wildlife and other animals.
Email from P 18/09/11
We keep coming up against this concern that to put control of bTB management in the hands of cattle farmers would open up a deluge of infection everywhere. But at the same time, the same people are quite content for diseases like leptospirosis and Johne's disease, which are also dangerous and also cross the species barrier, to be managed by farmers themselves.
If the subject of bTB hadn't been turned on it's head then the normal approach would be to have a bTB accreditation scheme so that herds which have to be OTF - ie. for export or 'green top' milk - are monitored to gain accreditation and then they only purchase accredited stock.
An example is the Herdsure scheme which covers Johne’s disease, leptospirosis, Bovine viral diarrhoea (BVD), liver fluke, infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR), and neosporosis. Here's a link to leaflets for farmers and vets:
4. In autumn 2009, the FSA [Food Standards Agency] Board requested that the Agency review the potential risks to consumers of meat and milk from cattle with evidence of M.bovis infection. The request was made as a number of years have passed since the ACMSF last considered the issue in 2001 and since that time the incidence of M.bovis infection in the UK cattle population has increased. The Board would like reassurance that the current controls on meat and dairy products are adequate to protect human health given this rise.
5. Consequently, in March 2010 the ACMSF reviewed changes in the hygiene regulations and disease incidence in cattle and humans which have taken place over the last 10 years. The Committee confirmed the result of its earlier 2001 risk assessment on meat and concluded that the risk remained very low.
38. There is a significant body of evidence to show that, if carried out correctly and at the time/temperatures required in the food hygiene legislation, M.bovis is destroyed by both batch and HTST pasteurisation and that there is an adequate safety margin. This is supported by the very low and stable level of human M. bovis infections seen in the UK for the last 15 years (<1% of culture confirmed cases) and there is no evidence that these infections have been acquired through recent consumption of contaminated milk.
Further ACMSF reports at http://acmsf.food.gov.uk/acmsfmeets/acmsf2011/acmsf270611/acmsfagenda270611
Re treatment of TB lesions http://www.food.gov.uk/aboutus/ourboard/boardmeetoccasionalpapers/2004/tbinmeat0204
The instructions make clear that where post mortem inspection reveals localised tuberculous lesions in more than one organ or area of the carcase, then the whole carcase and its offal and blood should be declared unfit for human consumption. Where, however, tuberculous lesions are found only in a single organ or part of the carcase, the instructions require the removal of the affected organ or part of the carcase as unfit for human consumption
NB If we are reading the TB stats for GB correctly, then the number of whole carcasses condemned is small.

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