Getting rid of bovine tuberculosis?

A farmer in my family told me, ‘People want clean meat.’

Bovine tuberculosis (bTB) is an infectious disease of cattle (Bos primigenius) caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium bovis. Our UK Government wants rid of bTB, because then the European Union (EU) would call us Officially Tuberculosis Free (OTF) and that would be good for business.

Here in Britain, bTB is a notifiable disease because it can infect people. Fuelled by that possibility, our Department for Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) aims to eradicate bTB in England within the next 25 years. Here’s the policy. Here’s TB Free England which, as its name suggests, is firmly in favour of the eradication policy.

But some people disagree. They think eradication is a daft idea. That we should learn to live with bTB which is no longer a real threat to the consumer (if it ever was) since pasteurisation became routine for milk. It’s not very serious for cattle either. It takes years to develop before the animal gets really ill, and old cattle aren’t kept in Britain because they lose productivity.

But bTB remains very serious for the farmer because of a test and cull policy. And it’s serious for wild badgers (Meles meles) because some people think they’re infecting the cattle. Cattle are shot and badgers are shot, because them’s the rules.

Holy cow, why is DEFRA still doing this? Why does it still try to eradicate bTB? Who does it think it’s kidding?

I told you a few weeks ago of serious doubt about whether the bTB eradication scheme is working. There I quoted the unnamed author of bovinetb.co.uk. Among other intelligent remarks that author says, ‘It would seem that the main reason for trying to eradicate bTB is so the UK can maintain its ‘TB free status’, thereby protecting the agricultural industry’s dwindling cattle exports.’

In fact I think there’s a mistake. We don’t have ‘TB free status’ here. Frank Verdonck of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) told us about bTB in the EU. The map on page 4 of Mr Verdonck’s report shows how England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland still have bTB, like several other EU countries.

So the bTB eradication policy is about exporting cattle, is it? I could believe that because farmers farm to make money. Those pretty cows in the fields aren’t just there to look pretty.

And I believe that the bTB eradication policy is about exports because DEFRA is bound by an EU Council Directive from 1964. Yes, 1964. Here’s the Council Directive. I found that by following links from DEFRA’s website, which calls it ‘the main EU regulation on bovine TB.’ Trawl through the legalese if you want to, please explain it if you can. I’m no lawyer but on page 16 under Article 13 I read, ‘Member States shall ensure that all dealers… deal only in animals that are identified and come from herds that are officially free of tuberculosis.’

What do you think? You can tell DEFRA your opinions right now if you want to. It’s holding a public consultation about bTB. If you’re the author of of bovinetb.co.uk I hope you’re still reading here and I hope you’ll explain what you said about Britain’s ‘TB free status’.

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About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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6 Responses to Getting rid of bovine tuberculosis?

  1. Pingback: Cuts to red tape in British agriculture | Science on the Land

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