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Ear tag frauds

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Investigations by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Trading Standards have revealed that some farmers are swapping ear tags from dairy cattle that have tested positive for bovine TB, with animals that are less productive. The less productive animals are then sent for slaughter and the farmer is compensated for the loss. The alleged evidence of fraud originally emerged from an investigation instigated by Gloucestershire trading standards officers who reviewed TB cattle sent to two slaughterhouses. A spokesman for Defra has said that three cases in England were already on their way to prosecution and investigations are continuing.

In the meantime in Wales a farmer, Emrys Jones Evans, a partner in the business IG and GM Evans of Pendugwum Farm, Llanfihangel, near Oswestry, who substituted a bovine TB reactor cow, by swapping its ear tags with another animal, pleaded guilty to six specimen charges at Welshpool Magistrates Court on 15 Aril 2011. He will be sentenced in Mold Crown Court on May 12. He also admitted another 21 charges relating to offences under the Fraud Act, Cattle Identification Regulations and Tuberculosis Regulations.

The prosecution of Evans, led by Powys County Council’s Trading Standards Service, followed an investigation into farming practices at the north Powys farm in May 2010, after allegations that a pedigree Holstein cow identified as infected with bTB in a test by the Animal Health Agency had its identity swapped for another animal prior to its compulsory slaughter. An officer who attended the valuation of the pedigree animal, saw that the slaughtered animal was noticeably different. Trading Standards staff, accompanied by Environmental Health and Animal Health Officers, and police searched the farm and found the original TB reactor animal still in the herd – but with a new identity. It was immediately isolated and slaughtered later that day. Milk from the farm was also destroyed as a precautionary measure.

Evans admitted interfering with ear tags of cattle, moving an inconclusive TB reactor off the farm in May 2010 without the authority of a licence, failing to present all animals for a TB test, presenting animals at a valuation which were animals other than their true identity and fraudulently trying to pass off an animal as a reactor when it was not. The court heard that DNA samples from cattle on the farm showed that many were not the offspring of the animals they were supposed to be. They will be prevented from entering the food chain.

After the hearing Graham Brown, Powys County Council board member for public protection, said: “This is an extreme case within the farming community and the prosecution of this business should act as an important deterrent. Ken Yorston, the council’s trading standards manager, said: “Farmers who try to circumvent those rules, for whatever reason, can expect to be taken to task and the full weight of the law will be used to bring them to justice.

The ear tag fraud cases raise important questions. Is this being done on a wide scale throughout the UK and, if so, how is it contributing to the alleged spread of the disease? Presumably farmers who are happy to keep cattle that tested positive in their herds suggests they don't believe bovine TB is a real problem and they are not concerned about the consequences?

As a result of the frauds farmers in England and Wales now face DNA checks on their cattle to prevent the illegal swapping of their animals' identities, an action the government says increases the risk of TB spreading to other herds and wildlife. To comply with current legislation all cattle carry ear tags so that authorities can track their movement across the country. However, as a result of the identity frauds from mid-April 2011 any cattle that test positive for bovine TB will also have a DNA sample taken. These samples will be retained by the government agency, Animal Health, and cross checked at random, or, where fraud is suspected. How much is this going to cost, and presumably the taxpayer will foot the bill?

The agriculture minister, Jim Paice, stressed the illegal activity was not widespread but was being carried out by ‘a very small minority’. In a written statement to Parliament on March 31 2011 he said the behavior was ‘totally unacceptable’ and warned anyone engaging in illegal tag swapping would ‘have the book thrown at them.’ He said “I am absolutely appalled any farmer would deliberately break the law in this way. The vast majority of farmers with TB in their herds are doing the right thing, and it’s reprehensible that anyone should be trying to get around the tough measures that are helping to control TB in cattle”.

Maybe it is just because of these tough measures that some farmers feel compelled to act illegally? However, the main farming industry representatives have been quick to condemn the frauds.

The Bovine TB Eradication Group for England (TBEG) said: “We are appalled at this emerging evidence of TB reactor fraud, and we strongly condemn any such behaviour. We urge the farming industry and the veterinary profession to continue to work together with the Government on the swift and decisive action announced today. We have given clear advice on what measures should be put in place quickly to tackle the problem. This suspected fraudulent behaviour by a few farmers should not be allowed to unfairly damage the reputation of the responsible majority or to undermine the TB control regime.”

Harvey Locke, president of the British Veterinary Association, said: "This fraudulent activity by a small number of farmers is shocking. Worryingly it puts the national TB eradication strategies at risk and urgent action is required to prevent it happening in the future. The BVA and BCVA (British Cattle Veterinary Association), in supporting Animal Health, are asking our members to insert the new DNA tags and collect the tissue samples of cattle that test positive for TB at the time of the test for no additional fee for a period of six months”.

John Fishwick, BCVA president, said: "The selfish actions of a small minority of farmers are undermining the hard work and integrity of the vast majority and undermining efforts to control TB in cattle. The BVA and BCVA believe that the veterinary profession must now do all it can to deal with this most serious issue and safeguard the integrity of the TB eradication programmes in England and Wales. We very much appreciate the support and cooperation that our members can give to Animal Health."

The National Farmers Union ( 
NFU) president, Peter Kendall, said 
“If there is any proven unlawful activity, then I unequivocally condemn any behaviour involving the deliberate switching of the identity of animals following a positive TB test," he said. "It is simply wrong. In my discussions with farmers I have seen nothing other than an overwhelming commitment and desire to want to get this dreadful disease under control. That is why we are putting in an enormous amount of time and effort to developing an effective eradication plan.” 

People convicted of such offences will face fines of up to £5,000 and a six month prison sentence if convicted for aiding the spread of TB or a 10 year jail sentence and unlimited fines if prosecuted for fraud.

Following the fraud announcements The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is reminding local authorities and dairy businesses about the rules on the sale of raw drinking milk and unpasteurised dairy products. The FSA stresses that the process of pasteurisation destroys the bacteria that causes TB and other pathogens that may be harmful to human health. The risk from consuming pasteurised milk or dairy products that may contain milk from TB reactor cattle is therefore very low.

 There is no evidence that milk from TB reactor cattle is being used to produce unpasteurised milk for drinking, or unpasteurised dairy products. The risk to human health from consuming milk or dairy products that are unpasteurised and might be contaminated with TB bacteria is low.

Tim Smith, Chief Executive of the FSA, said: ‘The health risks to consumers from this suspected fraud are very low. The Agency has taken immediate action to remind local authorities of food safety rules that must be followed, and will meet with producers, manufacturers and retailers to make clear the steps they must take to ensure food safety.’

Rules on TB and milk

 are strict. Under the TB control programme, cattle are tested regularly to find out if they are infected with Mycobacterium bovis, the bacteria that causes bovine TB. If a cow gives a positive reaction to the test it is called a ‘TB reactor’ and must be isolated from the rest of the herd and slaughtered. Its milk must not be used for human consumption.

 The milk from other animals in the herd must be heat treated, usually by pasteurisation at a minimum temperature of 72°C for 15 seconds, to destroy the bacteria. This regime must continue until the herd is declared free of TB.

 However, most milk these days is routinely pasteurized (in Scotland it is compulsory) but there are a few producers that still supply raw milk. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, unpasteurised cow milk for drinking can only be sourced from TB-free herds. It can also only be sold direct from farms or direct from the farmer via routes such as farmers markets and milk rounds or as part of a farm catering operation.

Unpasteurised milk may contain other bacteria, such as salmonella and E.coli O157 that can cause illness, and must be labelled to let consumers know that the milk has not been pasteurised and may contain organisms harmful to health. Products made with unpasteurised milk, such as some cheeses, are more widely available and must be labelled as being ‘made with raw milk’ or ‘made with unpasteurised milk’ at point of sale. Unpasteurised dairy products can be sold in Scotland, but it is illegal to sell unpasteurised milk for drinking in Scotland.

In view of the minimal health risks, why are so many resources being thrown at trying to eradicate bovine TB? It is becoming ever more clear that the current policy is not working and has too many problems. A radical re-think is necessary.

The Badger Trust has been quick to respond by saying; 'Defra’s sudden, massive and expensive response to the scandal of farmers switching ear tags to foil bovine TB (bTB) controls suggests these crimes are widespread rather than local'. The Trust has asked the relevant government ministers (Paice, Spelman, Cameron and Clegg) for answers to the following questions .

1) When did the fraud involving swapping of ear tags first come to light – do you believe this is the first time – if so, what evidence do you have to support that view; if not, how long do you suspect it has been going on?
2) How many cases of this fraud have been discovered so far – how many cows and herds have been affected and at what locations?
3) What investigations is your Department conducting to determine the extent of this fraud – what extra measures have been put in place to trace other cows and herds that may have been affected?
4) How much do you estimate this fraud and the other frauds mentioned above may have contributed to the incidence and spread of bovine TB?
5) The new measures you have announced to try to stop this fraud – tagging diseased animals and taking a DNA sample – are expensive and cover the whole country – that suggests that you see this as a major issue not restricted to a few farmers. Who is going to pay for these measures in the long term? It appears that some vets have offered to pay for these measures in the short term – what has prompted them to do this – are some vets implicated in the fraud?
6) If farmers are prepared to put their own stock and that of other farmers at direct risk by fraudulently changing identity of cows and moving them whilst under TB restriction, please confirm what measures you would propose to put in place so as to ensure that farmers treat wildlife – in this case badgers – with respect should your Department pursue its proposals to license farmers to cull badgers? We do not consider that Natural England has the resources to effectively monitor farmers’ conduct of a badger cull.
As a result of these serious and other recent frauds the Badger Trust has called for all plans to kill badgers in England and Wales to be abandoned. 'An investigation instigated by Gloucestershire Trading Standards exposed the deceptions when reviewing TB cattle sent to two slaughterhouses. As a result of the switching of ear tags, infected animals were being retained in herds. Claims by agriculture industry organisations that only “some” farmers were involved are clearly optimistic with the Midlands and the South West already implicated' says the Trust.

The Badger Trust also state that In The Times Defra is reported as saying that the fraud could be widespread and would undermine the case for a badger cull.

It is certainly not the first time there has been problems regarding ear tagging. According to media reports in 2010 there were problems of untagged cattle in Ireland. Some seventy cattle were seized in Co Cork, Ireland by the Department of Agriculture's special investigation unit and Garda teams at the start of 2010. Shortly after this they seized another 56 unidentified cattle in Co Cork. The cattle were found on a number of farms in north Cork and none of them had identification tags in their ears. The official raids took place over a number of weeks after officials from the local offices of the Department of Agriculture and Food had been concerned about certain herds in the area. Some five farms are reported to have been visited by the investigating teams which rounded up the animals and looked for identification for them. The first of the untagged animals were uncovered in raids on two farms in the Macroom and Dunmanway areas in January 2010.

During the investigation, tags, farm registers and other equipment was removed from the farms, and unidentified cattle were tagged by the SIU team. As none of the animals were identified they were destroyed after samples were taken. According to one blog it was believed a gang was operating in the area offering to buy animals for a very low price from farmers who had failed to tag or present animals for mandatory bovine TB or brucellosis tests.

1 April 2011, updated 7 April 2011 and again 21 April 2011

Information sources

Press Release from Badger Trust dated 7/4/11

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