Humorous irony as TB scheme lauded 60 years on

The Farm Exam recently reported that British animal health experts viewed the Irish Bovine Tuberculosis Eradication (BTE) scheme as a success. Therein lies a humorous irony, not to mention a shock to the cadre of Irish commentators who for decades denounced it as a failure.

From the 1940s, as part of tackling human tuberculosis, Britain removed tuberculous cattle using a test and cull scheme. By the early 50s it declared its national herd to be “attested” (few animals left infected). It insisted that imported Irish cattle to Britain should be TB-free. Voluntary Irish programmes up to 1954 failed, so a compulsory scheme began in 1955. The scheme was inherently unpopular. The social stigma associated with human tuberculosis in the 50s and the enforced lock-up of reactor herds meant that many Irish farmers felt victimised by a situation beyond their control.

However, in the first 10 years, the number of reactors fell from 30 per 1,000 to 4 per 1,000, leading the minister to declare Ireland “attested”. This gave the public impression that the country was “TB-free”. However, within veterinary circles, it was apparent that there was a (then unknown) source of infection for cattle that would prevent further reduction. We now know that source to be the badger-cattle interaction.

Up to the 1990s, the reactors per 1,000 varied between three and six, leading to stress for farmers, frustration for vets and a mistrust of both groups by the programme regulators, politicians and the general public. Evidence of careless, inconsistent and fraudulent behaviour (by the inevitable minority in all sectors) fuelled the general perception that the scheme typified public profligacy. Mr TK Whittaker informed the Senate in 1979 that it was “the biggest financial scandal in the history of this State“, wherein “vast sums of money have gone out in fees to veterinary surgeons and in compensation to farmers for reactor cattle — all to no national advantage whatsoever”.

This statement was as unfortunate as it was incorrect. A detailed cost/benefit analysis by Professor Seamus Sheehy of UCD in 1991 calculated that by reducing diseased animal numbers, the scheme facilitated increased output and premium market access thus adding 7% to the value of cattle products. In 1991 values it had returned £1.86 for every £1 spent, not counting human health savings or the reduction in lost work days. Had this information been better publicised, it might have encouraged a more positive attitude amongst the scheme’s participants and countered years of ill-informed regurgitation of Mr Whittaker’s misconception.

Because our export markets demanded that we demonstrate that only “TB-free” cattle supplied them, the scheme continued, albeit with inconsistent political support and funding for testing and research. The fruits of that continuance include management of the badger-cattle interaction and improved animal traceability which, when added to the testing surveillance delivered the “current success”.

Conversely, Britain relaxed its surveillance programme since the 70s, and has allowed wildlife lobbyists to stymie effective action on badgers. The inevitable disease spread has now become apparent and will have to be tackled with determination.

Animal disease controls are complex, difficult to explain and easy to misrepresent. Costs of effective programmes are often difficult to justify but only until the price of not having them has to be paid. The British authorities’ positive view of our BTE programme provides evidence of our historical ability to produce healthy animals and, so, safer food. Today, our premium food exporters are ever more aware of how animal health impacts on market access, let alone price. They have come to regard high animal health status as an investment in sustainable profit rather than a penal tax. Our newly discovered success with the BTE scheme should encourage us not to be afraid to make that investment in a rational and businesslike manner.

- Bill Cashman is a vet

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