Thursday, December 13, 2007

" Defra have no policy...

... and have spent £1 billion to no good effect in the last decade".

So said Lord Rooker, 1 hour and nine minutes into a slippery session with the EFRA (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) committee on December 10th. This was a long and tortuous attempt to drag from a minister, who although fashionably 'recycled', has been in the Defra seat for a decade, just what government policy on bTb would be.

But Lord Rooker was not forthcoming. The chairman remarked that he was not getting any degree of clarity, and that after ten years in the job, Lord Rooker was coming over as "don't have a clue".

But some of what he did say was unequivocal and we will summarise.

* That he wouldn't argue with the projection of a £300,000,000 annual cost of bTb in 2012 / 2013, predicted in the Defra strategy document of 2004.

* At £100,000,000 the cost of bTb annually was consuming 40 per cent of Defra's Animal Health budget - that rose to 70 - 80 percent in some areas.

* Much of the cost was on antiquated trace and paper based systems. "The vets and AHOs never get mentioned, but they operate a cumbersome paper trail". The computer screens are black and white.

* Defra has to formulate a comprehensive strategy. "The issue is bTb. We have a reservoir in the wildlife and disease in a food producing animal. And it is growing".

* "We are in real trouble. AHOs and VLA tell me that the disease is virtually impossible to eradicate in cattle while there is a reservoir in wildlife".

* "In the hot spot areas, AHOs tell me that 70 percent of the cattle breakdowns are badger related. They are on the front line".

* Cattle movements geographically are important, but "both VLA and AHOs tell me that the molecular structure [of the bacteria] is unique to areas. If the issue was cattle moving Tb around, then this molecular spread would be obvious".

* Scientists not arguing about the science of culling [ badgers], but how to do it.

* "The present situation is unsustainable. Whatever policy government come up with, they will not pay for it. This is the end of the line for taxpayer's money".

* "Culling as done by the RBCT does not work. The implication is you don't do it that way".

* The rest of mainland Europe is fine with test and slaughter - they don't have a wildlife reservoir of disease.

* "Government cannot reasonably withold licenses from applicants under section 10 (9) of the Badger Protection Act"; the Act was to protect the badger before it became known that the animal was a reservoir for bTb. Moratorium 'may have been illegal', but was never challenged.

* Zoning and cattle cordon sanitaires would destroy the industry. "The cost to the farming industry [of bTb] is horrendous, both financially and emotionally. It is very frustrating for farmers and the industry".

* The spread of bTb in "Midlands and SW hotspots has grown, but not as a result of trade".

* "bTb is the most serious disease that Defra face in terms of costs and resources. This cannot carry on".

So, an hour into the discussion, Lord Rooker was asked about the formulation of a policy to reduce costs and control bTb. And it soon became evident that his eminent lordship had one, he was not going to share it with the honourable members of the EFRA committee. When asked what the first issue on the menu of any policy would be, Lord Rooker replied:
We aren't paying for it.
And contradicting his earlier mention of farmer licenses, with Defra administrating any cull, he said Defra would :
".. not be paying for operational mapping or surveillance, even if we do sanction a cull
It is also far from clear who would issue any licenses, Defra or Natural England - although the indication was of an abdication of ministerial responsibility. Lord Rooker said repeatedly that there was abundant knowledge that if we do not deal with bTb in wildlife, we can't get rid of it in cattle. But he didn't know the cost of any clearance of wildlife reservoirs, because Defra hadn't done its sums.

Money is the key, he said. It dictates policy. Mmmm. The cynical may remind his lordship of the £1 million donation from the Political Animal Lobby which stopped all badger culling in response to outbreaks of Tb in its tracks. Was that value for money? We think not. But we digress...

Lord Rooker slammed the use of gamma interferon on the grounds of cost.
It would cost £1 million before compensation [for reactors]. We're not going down that route.

Doesn't say much for his faith in its efficacy either, does it?

And although pressing ahead with vaccination research, Lord Rooker was not too enthusiastic about either cattle vaccines (illegal under EU law, and would be catastrophic for international trade) or badger vaccines (who's going to pay for it?)

He said decisions needed clarity at the top. It wasn't there. Zuchermann, Dunnett, Krebs and the ISG and still no clarity. And they didn't understand the transmission routes of the disease. Whaaaaaaaaaaaat!! 'They' may not. We do. Sheesh.

Lord Rooker asked the committee not to "fall for another enquiry" (would that be like the like the RBCT?) and he intimated a decision early in 2008. He said that the disease had to be dealt with in the round, showing respect for a valuable industry and respect for wildlife. Chairman, Michael Jack, MP concluded the proceedings with a comment that they had a unanimity of agreement; that a practical decision and a plan has to be made. And quickly.

It was pointed out that GB may be othe only country in Europe to abdicate responsibility for a statutorily notifiable zoonosis. But Lord Rooker was having none of it.
"We shall issue the license".
he said.


Anonymous said...

An interesting post as ever - could you point us to the EU law that makes cattle vaccines illegal please?

Presumably this is not making all such vaccines illegal - eg BVD - just the (as yet unavailable) bTB variety.

Matthew said...

Anon 5.10

No, not all vaccines. It is because b. Tuberculosis is a statutory notifiable zoonotic disease that its control is so regulated. It is treated very seriously by the regulatory authorities, and only a handful of diseases are rated higher. (Ebola etc.)

All countries must have a strategy to control bTb, and adhere to it. The majority have eradicated it completely from their cattle herds with the skin test / slaughter.
We do not feel that the UK's annual cull of sentinel cattle complies with this.....

Animal diseases such as BVD, leptospirosis and IBR in cattle, (and orf, pulpy kidney and host of others in sheep), are not governed by the same rules and demand for their on-farm control / eradication makes it financially viable for drug companies to produce them for a world wide market.

Tb cattle vaccines would not be needed anywhere else in the world, except the western UK and the Republic of Ireland, with the latter doing quite well at bringing its own problems under control.

We discussed this in a bit more detail in out November post:

Lord Rooker was asked at the EFRAcom meeting why he was funding the development of vaccines for bTb if there was no possibility of using them. His reply was the same as our veterinary pathologists' .... ' a trade catastrophe and illegal under EU law', but he added, that doesn't preclude 'us' working on them. 'Us' being multi national pharmaceutical companies operating from the UK and Defra's science departments..

It is also our information that in the face of a such huge challenge from wildlife born infection, they would not work anyway.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for responding Matthew, but you didn't actually answer the question: what is "the EU law that makes cattle vaccines illegal?"

A simple reference would be all that needed - EU Directive Number for instance

Matthew said...

Anon 5.56

The EU system works by describing what must be done, not the other way around.
Community Tuberculosis control mirrors OIE directives which can be found in Directive 64/432/EEC as ammended.

Permissions must be sought and granted if any method of disease control applied to a food producing animal is proposed, which is not mentioned within the numerous ammendments to this document. (Under this directive, Badger vaccination could go ahead as the animal is not a food producing species)

Anonymous said...


"illegal under EU law"


"permisson must be sought"

Similar meaning - but the former rather emotive words when if/when a vaccine becomes available, permission might well be forthcoming.

Matthew said...

It was Lord Rooker who described vaccination, not us. He was then challenged as to why Defra was continuing to fund research if there was no possibility of using the product - which is I think, your point.

His reply was that research had to go ahead regardless. He also pointed out that vaccination as a stand alone country within the EU, would be catastrophic for trade. In other words a trade ban would result if we were use it unilaterally.

Vaccination for cattle ignores spillover into other species from infectious badgers. As we've said, killing the sentinel canary in the coal mine, is hardly conducive to a safe environment; neither does it fulfill Defra's obligations to control a notifiable zoonotic disease.

Vaccination for badgers we would support - providing of course, the Badger Trust pay.

Happy New Year.

Anonymous said...

Interesting insight into your personality perhaps?

seems that you aren't really interested in finding a solution - just the usual scapegoat.

yes, that scapegoat that you blame, want eliminated, you see as crippling your industry, ut someone else must pay to solve your problem.

How sad.

What hope for UK farming?

Not a lot with attitudes like yours perhaps?

The public is well used to popping into the supermarket where they are happy to buy products from the global economy. Perhaps they would be happy to buy Argentinian beef (very good stuff - I've been there) and EU milk and preserve what wildlife that remains in this ciountry despite intensive farming's best efferts to remove all that they see as pests.

Anonymous said...

And when the supplies of Argentinian beef and EU milk disappear or become too expensive for the 60 million population of this country what will Anonymous 5-43 pm do for food? Roast 'scapegoat',perhaps, served on a bed of boiled bracken sprinkled with dock seeds?
Whatever happens please do not come begging for food at my back door. My New Year's resolution is to stop producing cheap food for an ungrateful nation!

Meanwhile, thank you to the various Matthews for their perseverance in producing this blog, often in the face of extreme ignorance and provocation. Best wishes to you all and may 2008 be the year the government at last begins to carry out some effective disease control.

Matthew said...


So after reading (?) what we've said about control of an endemically infected population of badgers, after hearing the stories of closed herds losing shed loads of cattle to a non-bovine wildlife source which dare not speak its name, our Anonymous commentator 5.43 reels off the usual adjectives;

"attitudes like yours"

.. and hopes to 'preserve' GB's wildlife, and buy imported food.

A few home truths.
Badgers are not 'scapegoats'. Some groups are infected with tuberculosis, and this they spread to other species and amongst themselves. We are very interested in breaking that disease cycle, but that will not be done by piling up cattle.

Neither is the emotive 'e' word, elimination, either feasible or necessary. In fact it has been used, most imaginatively by a procrastinating government as an excuse for doing nothing.

The people doing the most shouting over this polemic, have no stake in its outcome at all, neither do they contribute, other than taxpayers to the resulting carnage. Lord Rooker did have the decency to mention the financial and emotional devastation which farmers who have done their best for bio security experience as lorry loads of cattle face premature slaughter. He also made it perfectly clear that government is cash strapped and that no more funding will be forthcoming. Whether that includes badger vaccines I don't know, but as farmers are being asked to fund Bluetongue vaccines, despite an EU underwrite scheme, it seems only fair to ask the supporters of endemically infected badgers, to put their money where their very strident mouths are.

You denigrate our 'attitudes'. When you've suffered extensive tb breakdowns in home bred cattle, often lasting several years you may have the right to criticise. Until then, like Anon. 12.27, we are really not that interested.

But you would do well to keep up with the global demand on food production. Your friendly neighbourhood supermarket is finding supplies tighter. The prime minister, formerly chancellor has already had a cabinet meeting to discuss a huge balance of payments deficit on - errrr, food. Commitment to biofuels has distorted the cropping regime across the world, and China and India are hoovering up any available supplies of pratically anything and everything.
Drought in the Antipodes has curtailed their exports. The result is tighter supplies, or no supplies. And hungry people.

So, Anon 5.43, you don't know us but denigrate our 'attitude'. My particular 'attitude', is good luck at finding imported food, not just at a price but at all. And, as cattle are obviously expendable I really hope you have an answer for the more unacceptable spill over victims of the endemic disease which you so want to 'preserve' in your chosen species.

Thanks for your support Anon 12.27We are tired. We are also under tb restriction again. And our New Year resolution is to get clear to trade again, and 'get a life'.

Anonymous said...

As an individual that has worked on and seen both sides of the story over the years, I too am concerned over the ignorance and sheer lack of knowledge people have on this topic. Like it or not, Badgers are a source of the disease, as has been proven by the much maligned Krebs report. If the perturbation effect is accepted, as it generally is, you HAVE to accept that badgers spread the disease. The comments on food supply are very real ones. When are we ever going to learn that, in a global economy you have to pay the going price for whatever is available. Ask the poor Mexicans who can't get enough grain from the US due to their bio fules programme how they feel about it !? This is only one small part of the global problems we are currently suffering.

Does anybody want to rely on foreign imports of beef from countries where Btb, FMD etc are rife being allowed into the country. What about animal welfare issues ans the "green miles" they use up ? For many, not seeing is the easy answer. Ignore it and it may go away ? I think not !

It is time we all understood that sick badgers should be eliminated from the equation, along with the 26,000 sick cattle slaughtered every year. Until this happens, we will never have a healthy badger or cattle population. Doing nothing, as many seem to want, is not the answer

Jim said...

Anon 5:43, it is blinkered "attitudes" such as yours which are actually contributing to the worsening bTB situation through things like the "Back off the badger" campaign (of which the government seems to take such a lot of notice). Whether you like it or not, you have to face up to a couple of facts.

First, badgers do give bTB to cattle, and killing more and more cattle is not going to solve the problem so long as infected badgers are left out there. (N.B. I said "infected", not "all".)

Second, the era of cheap and plentiful food is over - period. You aren't going to be able to import Argentinian beef, etc, just to spite British farmers. In fact it's not so long since the Argentinians banned exports of their own beef for six months in order to safeguard supplies for the home market.

Finally, I'd like to add my thanks to the Matthews who run this site with patience and politeness in the face of great adversity, both on the farm (bTB breakdowns, etc, etc) and on the web (in the shape of the extraordinary ignorance and vitriol which some commentators display). May the year ahead be better for you than the one just ended.

Anonymous said...

The evening news on Radio 4 had a report that Defra officials have been discussing whether we need agriculture in the UK or whether it would be cheaper to just buy in our food! Sounds rather like the house owner who decides to economise by cancelling his house insurance.There appear to be no limits to the stupidity of this government.I am reminded of comments made by a Defra official as he organised the slaughter of yet more of our cattle that the Bovine TB problem would be solved inside 5 years. The reason he gave was that there would be no cattle left by then.
I find it hard to believe anyone or anything these days but on the otherhand nothing much would surprise me.

George said...

Badgers have TB. They spread it among themselves, and sometimes (increasingly so, sadly), they give it to other species including cattle. There is absolutely no d0ubt about that at all. And humans can get it. There have been several incidents of this in the last few years.
We can only reduce the disease by dealing with the TB in the badgers, by whatever means is effective. Currently there is no good vaccine for any species, including humans.
Livestock farming is not in a good state, and TB is often the last straw - many farmers have given up milk production, or got out all together because of TB.
Large areas of the UK are only suitable for livestock - you can’t grow crops on two inches of soil. We will need all the food production we can get in the future, of all sorts.
Oh, and sheep and goats can get TB too...

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No spam please.

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