Thursday, August 09, 2007

"From Tb bacilli - everywhere.."

A little light relief in the a letter to the Veterinary Record this week, offers a grotesque but accurate slant on the bizarre 'Pythonesque' situation surrounding TB eradication in Great Britain. The letter, from H.Fraser, Oban , Argyll and Bute, offers grateful thanks to John Bourne and the ISG on behalf of all Tb bacilli.

"Oh goody, goody! We can go forth and multiply. We and our progeny are really grateful to that nice Independent Scientific Group, which is to provide us with a secure future. What a relief that those nasty vets and cattlemen are to be prevented from removing our expanding habitat. So we can now continue to spread. Sadly, when this spread is to cattle, we risk death by fire or brimstone when they use that nasty skin test. And, when we spread to humankind, they try and kill us off with those nasty antibiotics; some of my mutant friends have learned how to avoid this fate and many are quite taken with this idea.

But at least now we can expect to be safe in the badger. Some of us can remember those bad old days in the 1960s, when we were almost exterminated, but no more. As you know sir, we are not in the least fussy where we live, and now that kind Professor Bourne will allow us to spread and colonise unmolested, at least in badgers.
Signed; Tb bacilli everywhere."

Another letter in the same issue from Dr. Richard Yarnell, CEO of the Badger Trust predictably (happliy?) quotes the ISG tome at length, seemingly unaware of the total failure of past efforts based solely on cattle controls. He also ignores the lack of evidence of the spoligotype spread which would show a different colour pattern - or none at all - if cattle were plastering the countryside with different strains of Tb. It's all cattle he says. So it must be, but at least the Tb bacilli are happy.

Not so the badgers, infected with them though. A robust letter from Dr. Lewis Thomas points out:

"But the recommendation to bear down more and more on the disease in cattle, whilst ignoring the huge reservoir of infection in badgers, defies all logic. It also ignores the chronic welfare problem for the badger."

One would imagine that the "chronic welfare problems" of badgers should be of concern for the Badger Trust as well, or at least its members. But by denying the result of Tb infection and its transmission opportunities in their chosen species, by ommission they support Mr. Fraser's letter quoted above.

And the death or welfare of any species is not a problem for the Tb bacilli. They now have the opportunity to thrive, transmit and expand their host base. And as the letter from H. Fraser says, this is thanks to John Bourne and the ISG.
Epidemiological logic has flown out of the window, past mistakes are likely to be repeated, spill over transmissions are inevitable but the upside of all this is of course, is the TB bacilli are very, very happy.

A humerous letter with an iron-hard message, we think.


Anonymous said...

You bloggers are a scream!

How can anyone take you seriously when you can't even get a name right?

Who is "Dr. Richard Yarnley"?

Matthew said...

Anon 8.38
Thanks for that; late night. Too much to do, too tired, will edit. More than half right - Richard, Dr and Yarn.
Quite a yarn too, that letter wasn't it?

Jim said...

I guess no-one likes having their name got wrong, but perhaps the Anons don't realise that the people who run this site actually have other things to do, i.e. look after their livestock and farms, and work extremely long hours. A slip of the keyboard is as nothing compared to the issues we are dealing with here, and pedantry is as unwelcome as semantics. Why not just point out the error politely? Incidentally, it would be helpful if the various "Anon's" could give themselves different noms de plume (assuming there is/are more than one of them).

Anonymous said...

Shambo’s revenge: this is what happens when you mess with the gods

Rod Liddle

It took some of our farmers less than 24 hours after the first outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) last week to demand an immediate and comprehensive culling of Britain’s ramblers, dogs, badgers, Defra vets, tourists, van drivers, biochemists, etc etc. It is not enough that we should subsidise our farmers once over; when misfortune occurs we should then further compensate them — and suffer in silence as they demand that footpaths be closed, wildlife exterminated and so on. They have not yet gathered, or do not care, that the meat industry is of minuscule importance to the economy compared to the tourism and leisure sectors; still less that the land upon which they rear their cattle is heavily supported by the taxpayer. You will remember those tricoteuse Welsh farmers howling for the slaughter of Shambo, the divine Hindu bull which, ten days ago, was indeed executed by lethal injection at their insistence because it suffered from bovine tuberculosis (though posed no threat whatsoever to commercial livestock). Well, you mess with the gods at your peril. The score now stands at about Krishna 150–Farmers 1, after extra time, and Krishna may not have finished yet. My guess is Shambo was promptly reincarnated — as the gently enraged worshippers at Skanda Vale proclaimed he would be — as an infected cow, somewhere in the Guildford area. ‘This’ll teach the bastards,’ he is probably sniggering to himself, before being slaughtered and reincarnated again, maybe as Ben Bradshaw. We can only hope that one of those scary Hindu smallpox deities doesn’t attempt to wreak revenge on the NFU as well, out of solidarity.

The last FMD outbreak, back in 2001, ended up costing us (rather than the farmers) some £8 billion, excluding revenues lost through damage to our tourism industry. As European Union officials pointed out rather drily, while steadfastly refusing to chip in with 60 per cent of the cost, the government and the taxpayer were taken for a ride by both the farmers and the contractors (who dispatched seven million animals at often extortionate cost). Did any farmer end up out of business or even out of pocket after the 2001 debacle — a debacle, it is worth reiterating, that was brought on farmers by, er, farmers? This time around, the farmers were quick to blame the government for having not ‘learnt the lessons’ of 2001. But an Audit Commission report in 2005 suggested that enormous progress had been made by Defra, although a promised new computer system was not yet in place. Meanwhile, the Commission maintained, the farmers were still cheerfully purchasing illegal meat supplies from the Continent for cattle feed, the precise cause of the previous outbreak. So who, exactly, has failed to ‘learn the lesson’?

The present outbreak may indeed be the result of escaped contaminants from the Pirbright Institute for Animal Health laboratory, just three miles from the farm where the first outbreak occurred. Or, far more likely, from the adjacent Merial site where there’s been plenty of work on FMD in the last year or so. It is suspected that the unusual strain of FMD is the same as that being investigated at the company’s lab. Merial is a perfectly reputable private firm, a French-US agglomerate created by the merger of Merck Inc and Rhone-Poulenc a few years back, its spiritual home in Lyon but its worldwide headquarters in Essex. It leases its lab site at Pirbright from the Institute for Animal Health but is solely responsible for its own security. It is the only lab in the country with a licence to research live FMD and its security procedures have to be pretty stringent. Truth be told, there is not much evidence — despite the inevitable, kneejerk caterwauling and conspiracy theory nonsense — that the firm has been anything but stringent. It was last inspected by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’s Vaccine Bank in February of this year and apparently no problems were recorded. It is true that during the previous outbreak, back in 2001, there were mutterings that Pirbright employees visited pubs and used footpaths ‘despite a requirement of quarantine after handling viruses’ and described biosecurity there as ‘fairly relaxed’.

Building work has been in progress at the Merial site and a Health and Safety Executive inspection, being undertaken as we went to press, may quite possibly discover some lapse. But even if it does, you would be hard-pressed to shift the blame on to the government: the requisite inspections, by three separate bodies (DEFRA, the Health and Safety Executive and the Home Office) have been carried out to the letter. Some farmers have complained about the close proximity of the Pirbright lab to large fields full of peacefully grazing, blissfully unaware bovines. But biotech work and innovation has to take place somewhere. The farmers, presumably, would prefer for it to be undertaken in the middle of a large city. And any planning objections should be referred to Woking Borough Council.

David Cameron, meanwhile, has asserted that the Merial lab is ‘inspected and licensed by the government’. I do not know what is intended by this remark. Does he mean that the government should not have licensed Merial to carry out its important work, and while doing so employing hundreds of British people? Or that it should not have inspected the site? Or perhaps inspected the site and found it wanting, simply for the sheer hell of it? Cameron went on to offer comment on the grave irony of a lab designed to prevent FMD actually being the cause of it. But it is not that much of an irony really, when you think about it, is it, Dave? The rural lobby has been flexing its muscles too; Clive Aslet, ‘editor at large’ of the rural middle-class property-porno mag, Country Life, has suggested that the relationship between Merial and Defra is ‘unclear’ (it seems perfectly clear to me, mate, and I am an ignorant townie) and that there have been incidences of problems at the Institute of Animal Health before, which he details. Well maybe, Clive — but it looks as though this particular problem has not originated at the Institute of Animal Health, but from a private company. So what’s your gripe, then?

Where the government might cop a little blame, though, is in a certain reluctance to sanction vaccinations of healthy cattle. It has the notion in its collective head that vaccinations somehow ‘hide’ FMD in herds, which seems to be based more upon superstition than observable scientific fact. However, it may be based upon a reluctance to fling more taxpayer money down the ravenous maw of livestock farming, which I reckon is something to be commended.

Anonymous said...

Nice one anon (shambo)

It's about time these farmers realised that we, the anon 'Jo & Sharon Public' are their customers - or do they want to rely solely on the export trade?

A visit to any supermarket will confirm that we're in a global market, and most people realise that we can import food easily from just about anywhere.

Sure, we also like the countryside. And up to now the appearance of this has been largely shaped by farming.

This does not mean that farming is the only way to manage the landscape, and 'other ways' will be found if industrial methods continue to lose public support.

Anonymous said...

In a piece headed "Life on the land" published on
Aug 9th 2007 in 'The Economist' we were reminded that "Britons, an urban people, do not as a rule know much about the ailments of livestock" and that "Even the public has turned against farmers, opposing a call by the National Farmers' Union (NFU) for a cull of badgers which, the NFU says, transmit tuberculosis to cattle".

The concluding paragraph: “You've got to consider asset wealth as well.” Agricultural land prices are rising fast, and have risen by around 50% since 2003, thanks to confidence in the industry's future and to rich-but-disillusioned City slickers looking for a slice of rural idyll to retire to, or at least to spend their weekends in. Foreigners are taking an interest too, with farmers from other parts of Europe attracted by prices lower than those at home. For any British farmer thinking of selling up, now looks like a tempting time."

So, to echo the feelings of the two previous 'anons' - hands off our wildlife.

Stop moaning, and go get a different job if you don't like farming. But don't expect the public to compensate you - very few other industries get handouts from the public purse like farming does.

Matthew said...

To our Anons this morning.

BTb is a zoonosis. Spillover to other mammals is inevitable. It is happening right now. To ignore that is naive.

The notion that supermarkets can buy globally while leaving GB as a theme park is as short sighted as it will be short lived, given population density, climate change and the conversion of arable land into 'terrorist free' bio-fuel. Not to mention China's ability to hoover up world stocks of all commodities, including wheat and rice, while building factories on its own agricultural land.

'Surplus' food is not going to be there 'at any price' - it is not going to be there at all. Contracts for exports from third world countries are cancelled or not renewed as they realise they must keep their own populations fed. The UN is desperately short of 'food aid' corn for areas such as Darfur.

So while farmer bashing may be a lightweight, fun sport for well fed journalists in the UK right now, times will change.

Keep to the point.
Mr. Fraser has pointed out that the ISG has given a deadly, infectious, bacterial zoonosis a 'license to thrive' in one of Britain's best loved mammals.

George said...

In the not too distant future we may all become aware that there are very few food surpluses in the world. On the 3rd of August a state of emergency was declared in the Bulgarian region of Tsar Kaloyan due to the continuing drought. Two-thirds of the region's wheat crops have been destroyed, while the damage to sunflower fields is expected to reach 100 per cent unless there is some imminent rain. A large chunk of the southern and eastern EC (of which Bulgaria is a part) is very hot and dry, and their agriculture is suffering. There will be a lot less to go round in the next year – and this is a continuing trend.
Oh, and plenty of farmers have been driven from their family homes by animal disease – many by TB.

Jim said...

When the people on the other side of a debate feel they have to resort to petty insult, to my mind it's an admission that they've lost the argument. If the Anon's can do no better than reproduce Rod Liddle's piece (I would have expected better from him), or the surprisingly ill-informed item from the Economist, they really are clutching at straws. Perhaps they should consider what would happen if farmers followed the Economist's advice and sold up. If the land isn't being farmed then it's not producing food for you to eat. And, as others have pointed out, climate change, population growth, increasing affluence in some industrialising countries and the use of land for bio-fuels mean that the age of surpluses and cheap food is over - not at some distant future date you needn't worry about, but now. As some wise person once remarked: "The end of civilisation is only three meals away."

Anonymous said...

You suggest that we "Keep to the point.
Mr. Fraser has pointed out that the ISG has given a deadly, infectious, bacterial zoonosis a 'license to thrive' in one of Britain's best loved mammals."

The bTB bacteria occurs along with countless others in our environment.

Like the others, it seeks out its best methods for survival.

Mammal hosts make a good choice.

This means virtually any mammal as I expect you well know.

The bacteria does not magically originate from badgers, unless they have become infected from some outside source - which could be another badger, or cattle, or direct from an environmental source.

It's deadly because we choose not to treat it!

If you don't like public opinion as reflected by some of the media, the solution is simple - stop calling for more slaughter.

If the commercial beef and dairy farmers that want to pursue a policy of killing everything that dents their profit margin did pack up what would happen?

Not a lot!

And we wouldn't need to rely solely on imports either.

The reality is that there are plenty of farmers who are quite happy to farm in an environmentally sensitive way that does not involve the deliberate slaughter of wildlife that some want.

This blog is getting boring!

Matthew said...

Anon 4.46 said
"stop calling for more slaughter"

We aren't. But when a 'commercial' cow tests positive to bTb, that's the reality we face.

You say "The reality is that there are plenty of farmers who are quite happy to farm in an environmentally sensitive way that does not involve the deliberate slaughter of wildlife that some want."

That implies that if one were to farm in an 'environmentally sensitive way', bTb would not be a problem? Sorry to burst your balloon but one of our contributers farms just 20 organic anguses on 80 acres of a National Park, governed by some very strict 'environmentally sensitive' constraints. He suffered a 2 year breakdown. Only one of us farms over 200 acres. We all appreciate the environment and its inhabitants. But increasingly companion animals and organic bovine lawnmowers are caught up in bTb too. And their owners, not under the same constraints with commercial buyers as we are, are not prepared to accept 60 day testing indefinitely with no prospect of getting clear.

Why should piling up dead cattle , higher and quicker aka John Bourne, have any effect whatsoever on bTb, if (and they were not with 4 of our contributers )they were not the source of the problem?

We are not in wipe out mode for badgers either. We favour rt-PCR to identify infected populations, and would certainly take out those testing positive, then vaccinate the ones testing clear to protect them from latent infection.

Test and slaughter for cattle has eradicated bTb in most other countries without a wildlife reservoir. In the presence of such, absolutely nothing else makes a dent - as we have said.

If we are 'boring' you, feel free...

Jim said...

Anon 4.46 says: "If the commercial beef and dairy farmers that want to pursue a policy of killing everything that dents their profit margin did pack up what would happen?"
This one sentence contains so many mistaken assumptions that I should probably be astonished, but I fear that people have become so remote from the production of the food that ends up on their plate that these myths are perpetuated (and believed) all too easily. Where to begin...?
First, virtually all beef and dairy farmers have to be "commercial" in the sense that they need at least to cover their costs (plus have a bit to live on and to re-invest in the farm - new equipment, fences and so on). If they aren't commercial, they will go out of business.
Second, what "profit margin"? Most milk producers and beef farmers are presently forced to accept prices that are below their costs of production. This hasn't hit the headlines particularly where beef producers are concerned, but the Womens Institute has recently done some tremendous work to raise the issue over milk.
Third, I have yet to meet a farmer who wants to "kill everything". I am sure no such person exists. I do, however, want to bring an end to the continued killing of our cattle - and part of that objective must involve the killing of the wildlife reservoir of bTB, i.e. diseased badgers. (Note: not "all badgers" - see previous postings by the authors of this blog, where their proposals are cogently put.)
Fourth, if beef and dairy farmers did pack up on a significant scale, there would be a serious effect on the supply of fresh milk and beef in this country. We simply cannot meet all our needs from imports. Why did Argentina ban exports of beef for six months last year? - because there was a shortage domestically which was pushing prices up, and they decided the needs of their own people came first (quite reasonably). This sort of thing is only going to become more common.

George said...

Unfortunately, TB bacteria are now to be found quite commonly in badgers, where ever they got it from originally, and are now well adapted to living in them. This would not be a problem if they kept the disease to themselves, but they can become horribly infectious - and that is a fact visible to anybody who has done PMs on badgers from an infected area.
Treatment of this disease in animals is tricky. TB is a past master at becoming resistant to antibiotics. It is also difficult to get at - the antibiotic has difficulty in getting into the TB abcess as the body walls it off. So humans get 6 months of really very nasty antibiotics. And at the end of that time, the disease might have been cured. Sometimes it isn't, and it comes back later. Sometimes the patient dies.

Matthew said...

Anon 4.46 (extra point)
The implication that bTb is among many bacterium just hanging around in the environment is not strictly correct.

Many surveys done since the 1970s have found no evidence of bTB in populations of other wild mammals indigenous to the UK. If it is found at all, as very slightly in deer, (and from memory, 1 or 2 foxes) the level is such that infection is neither sustained within that population nor sustainable. A bacterium which kills its host quickly soon dies out, and therein lies the problem for the badger.

As we have said, and you probably know already, badgers can sustain the infection very successfully. Living for up to 8 years, sustaining pregnancy and rearing cubs all while intermittantly shedding (and spreading) infection. And that infection at such a rate (300,000units of bacteria per 1ml of urine, and 30 ml of urine voided at a squirt) as to make spill over into other species inevitable.

The parliamentary questions asked of bTb transmission, found that only 70 units of bacteria were needed to provoke a skin reaction in any bovine recipient of this transmission opportunity. Similarly within badger group transmission, very few bacteria were needed to inflict generalised tuberculosis via bite wounding and aerosol opportunity within setts.

As George says, 'treatment' is prolonged, difficult and uncertain - even in human patients. It is practically impossible in the wild. And while cattle are regularly tested and slaughtered ahead often even of clinical symptoms (about half of all reactors show NVL at postmortem) badgers at the end of a long life living with tuberculosis, do suffer as they die from it.

Anonymous said...

Matthew said...

"BTb is a zoonosis. Spillover to other mammals is inevitable."

For your information - a zoonosis is any infectious disease that is able to be transmitted from other animals, both wild and domestic, to humans or from humans to animals (the latter is sometimes called reverse zoonosis).

George said...

Unfortunately, TB bacteria are now to be found quite commonly in badgers, where ever they got it from originally,

Yes George, they probably got it from cattle originally. The cattle most likely from other cattle and ultimately an environmental source.

Matthew said...

Anon 4.46 (extra point)
The implication that bTb is among many bacterium just hanging around in the environment is not strictly correct.

Many surveys done since the 1970s have found no evidence of bTB in populations of other wild mammals indigenous to the UK.

You go on to contradict your own statement (deer), and actually the only surveys done of 'other' mammals have been pretty inadequate relying as they did on retrived corpses.

More importantly 'environment' does not mean 'mammal'. try soil, etc, etc

Your beloved PCR is suppose to be able to detect bTB in soil around what you may call 'dirty' badger setts I believe.

Matthew said...

Anon 4.46 said
"stop calling for more slaughter"

We aren't.

And then goes on:

We are not in wipe out mode for badgers either. We favour rt-PCR to identify infected populations, and would certainly take out those testing positive, then vaccinate the ones testing clear to protect them from latent infection.


'take out' does that not mean kill?

Or to use a slightly more emotive word - slaughter.

Then you bring up (yet again) the unproven PCR and the unavailable/unproven vaccine ideas.

Yes both may be useful SOMETIME IN THE FUTURE if they are shown to be workable - perhaps thats why more (public) money is being spent on research into these areas.

Same old stuff, repeated circular arguments selective of the truth. Does anyone know the full story?
Does your selective blogging help?

Well it passes the time, but you (the farming industry) are losing more public support every day.

Anonymous said...

From another anon

This may not apply to you bloggers, but the real problem that farmers have with bTB is not one of the welfare of their livestock, even when this results in the premature death of reactors due to the test & slaughter regime.

The real issue is the movement restrictions.

The livestock industry has become very dynamic due to the ease with which commodities can be transported just about anywhere. Livestock are nowadays another widely transported 'product'.

The production of food for home consumption need not be reliant on transporting animals in the way that is now commonplace.

Along with the advances in transport has come improvements in communication - particularly the vast information resource that is available on the internet.

Jo Public can (and some do) do his homework and find out for himself lots about modern farming, including the economic and welfare impacts of the many diseases that can afflict livestock.

It is not hard to realise the truth about cattle TB.

The restricions on 'normal' trading give many farmers real problems.

Unfortunately perhaps, many value their native wildlife enough to resist attempts at 'control' that some feel necessary to ensure the free and extensive movement of livestock that has become the norm.

Perhaps it is time for change, and a return to more local food production.

Matthew said...

Thanks (another)Anon 1.41

We've outlined before on this site the 'benefits' of Tb restriction, for which we're all queuing up.

And you are absolutely correct about the straight jacket of movement restriction. With it inevitably comes overstocking, which means shooting bull calves at birth instead of rearing them, and the enforced purchase of extra feed, straw and housing for any other category of stock which cannot be traded.

Direct slaughter is the only outlet, and even that is blocked by two major supermarket buyers, who will not take stock from Tb restricted farms.

Unpasteurised milk, made into speciality farm gate cheeses are another casualty.

Farms have had to break decades of 'closed herd' biosecurity, to purchase in milking cattle under license, to keep to the level profile of milk production, demanded by today's processors. Others lose money trying to avoid doing this.

Up with this is, farmers would put, (short term) provided that an end could be seen. But year after year of 60 day testing is aes pointless as it is expensive if the reacror cattle are removed, only for their herd mates to face reinfection from wildlife.

The wider issues of moving cattle, particularly slaughter cattle, is a whole new blog. Originally going back to the doubling up of abattoir costs to comply with EU rules which forced many small craft butchers out of business.
In some parts of the UK, supermarket abattoirs have such a hold on prices that there is £200 difference in a couple of hundred miles. They achieve this in part by trucking their supplies from east to west and south to north, keeping 'local' cattle suppliers in an iron grip.

The movement of breeding cattle is vital to introduce new bloodlines, and has always happened. Dairy cattle can take advantage of AI but for beef breeders a new bull is usually introduced every 3/4 years to avoid inbreeding.

As regards how it affects us;
One contributer takes fat cattle to his local abattoir in his own transport, but has recently lost valuable sales of his pedigree breeding bulls due to Tb restriction. They had to go for meat instead.

Another is within '3 years' of having Tb confirmed and an inconclusive reaction has stopped the sale of pedigree in calf dairy stock.

One of our northen Matthews sells direct to a local butcher, but bitterly resents the 'take it or leave it' price option, of having no alternative outlet.

Another contributer was within a few miles of a prize winning cheese processor, and his quality of milk made him a valuable consignee. Milk profiles were an enormous problem, as was surplus cross bred stock, normally traded off the farm as 'store cattle'. These had to be finished to prime stock weoghts, and 'marketed' as best he could.

Finally our worst nightmare occured to a contributer rearing single suckled calves, who was stuck under restriction with no sales of last year's calves (so no income) a pregnant suckler cow and now this year's newly born calves too. Double the stock the farm should be carrying, no income and little prospect of getting out of restriction.

So we would agree with you entirely, that movement restrictions give farmers many serious problems, not all of which would be overcome though by 'local' choices.