Deep south source ‘likely’ for cattle disease

It might have been discovered in South Canterbury first, but there are suggestions mycoplasma bovis has been in Southland longer. David Williams reports.

Mycoplasma bovis, the disease that has sparked a Government cull of more than 22,000 cattle, has probably been in New Zealand for several years and might not have originated in South Canterbury, a prominent agricultural consultant says.

The Ministry for Primary Industry says the outbreak was first found in cattle in South Canterbury – now known as the Van Leeuwen farms – in July last year. In December, the disease was found in Southland, at three properties owned by Southern Centre Dairies, in Winton.

Lincoln University honorary professor of agri-food systems Keith Woodford has told Newsroom it is “highly likely” the disease was present in Southland before it made its way to South Canterbury. Stock movements from the Winton farms have been traced to early 2016, he says, and may stretch back to 2014.

The further back the stock movements can be traced, the closer the country gets to finding the source – or sources – of the disease, Woodford says.

“It’s looking a high likelihood the infection was in Southland before it was in South Canterbury,” Woodford says. “But if that is the case, we still don’t know how it got from Southland to South Canterbury.”

He adds: “If we’re going to learn from this and prevent these sorts of things happening again, then we need to try very, very hard to find out where it came from.”

Southern Centre Dairies co-owner Alfons Zeestraten could not be reached for comment last night.

Cull announced

On Monday, the Government announced the cull of 22,300 animals on 28 infected properties – that’s 11 more than were infected in mid-January. Twenty-one farms are clustered in Southland and South Canterbury or North Otago. Only one North Island farm is affected, in Hawkes Bay. The Government has set aside $60 million for compensation claims, on top of operational costs of $35 million. DairyNZ, Beef+Lamb and the Meat Industry Association have said they will pay $11.2 million towards fighting the disease.

Woodford supports the cull, saying it gives the country a chance to eradicate the disease. But he says there’s still a risk the disease has infected cattle on other farms and it hasn’t been picked up yet.

Testing for mycoplasma bovis is complex and difficult, he says. Some farms have tested positive without having a single sick animal, which highlights the challenge of tracking the disease.

“We’ve got examples of farms that have been tested free on the first time, free on the second time, and then the third time they test, they’ll come up with some positives, but it was there all along.”

Woodford has previously criticised MPI. In January, he wrote a blog post saying the ministry’s line that all infected cattle had a link to the Van Leeuwen Group “no longer stands up well to scrutiny”. A month later, the ministry admitted there were two infection “centres” – Southland and South Canterbury.

Woodford says MPI could have communicated better – “we might have had a lot less nonsense talked” – but it would have changed little. Primary Industries Minister Damien O’Connor told RNZ yesterday the National Animal Identification and Tracing (NAIT) scheme had failed, with 30 percent compliance in some areas.

“I don’t think we can say if NAIT had been 100 percent effective then it suddenly would have stopped at one farm or two farms or five farms.” – Keith Woodford

Woodford says because it’s likely the disease had been in the country for several years before it was detected, the disease was “always going to get away from us, for a while”.

“It’s made it more difficult to trace some of those animals but, at this stage, I don’t think we can say if NAIT had been 100 percent effective then it suddenly would have stopped at one farm or two farms or five farms.”

Early in the cattle disease outbreak, the previous government was “slow to get organised”, Woodford says. But the regime over the past two or three months of quarantining animals and comprehensive testing of farms has been the right move. “But we all have to accept that there’s no guarantee it’s going to work.”

On RNZ yesterday O’Connor accused the previous government of reacting too slowly to what he calls “the single biggest threat not to just dairy and livestock but actually to the New Zealand economy”. He charitably suggested the pace of the official reaction was slowed by the lead-up to the election and the inadequacies of NAIT. But O'Connor went on to say MPI was under-resourced and suggested the National-led government took its eye off the ball by focusing on doubling exports.

“We have been too casual when it comes to biosecurity, and each and every person in this country has to understand the threats.”

In an emailed statement to Newsroom, former minister Nathan Guy says under National, MPI received more funding for biosecurity than under any other administration (an easy claim, considering MPI was formed in 2012). He says Labour and New Zealand First voted against a border clearance levy introduced in 2015 which meant passengers paid for border services rather than the taxpayer.

“The NAIT review began in 2016 and is currently sitting with the minister waiting sign-off for public release, which I look forward to.”

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