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Deeply flawed system a cause for concern

Two years after Mycoplasma bovis hit the headlines, there are still problems with tracking stock movements. David Williams reports.

Some describe Kathy McCallum as a guru of the country’s national animal tracing scheme, NAIT. The Southland dairy farmer laughs at the tag, retorting: “No, just a frustrated NAIT user.” Is there any other kind?

McCallum and husband Lloyd have 1600 cows, plus young stock, over three farms. She’s spent the last few months trying to get her NAIT records right. That involved printing off 80 pages of information and manually double-checking NAIT numbers against the cow ID numbers in another system, MINDA, used by dairy farmer-cooperative Livestock Improvement Corporation.

“You’ve got to look up every nine-digit number on the MINDA system to see whether they’re still there or not,” she says. “There’s no way of doing it easily.”

(Physical verification is done using electronic readers.)

The NAIT and MINDA systems are meant to be compatible to avoid double-entry, but they don’t share information perfectly. And mistakes can be time-consuming to fix.

McCallum: “I’ve got animals that I have to do today that were inadvertently killed off on my MINDA records. So they have been killed off in NAIT. To reinstate them, I will have to ring MINDA and get the reinstated. That will not reinstate them with NAIT. Then I have to contact NAIT and reinstate them there as well.”

There are some helpful people at the call centre, she says. But if you hit the answerphone, there are empty promises to call back within 10 days.

“Every message that I’ve left, nobody’s ever got back to me. I’ve sent emails and they haven’t got back to me,” McCallum says. (NAIT says it has been actively recruiting to double contact centre staff numbers.)

“You’ve either got to work it out yourself or you just keep trying. Or a lot of people go, ‘Why bother?’

“The system is not good. So we need a much better system and then we would get much better compliance.”

Two years on

On July 25, 2017, the Ministry for Primary Industries confirmed a South Canterbury dairy herd had tested positive for Mycoplasma bovis. MPI restricted movements of stock from the property, while it determined the spread of the bacterial disease, which poses no threat to humans but can serious effects on cattle.

Tracing stock movements should have been easy, via the National Livestock Identification and Tracing Scheme, NAIT. But the scheme didn’t work. The main issue was most farmers didn’t use it – and Government agencies did little to enforce it. Cattle were found untagged and movements, especially farm-to-farm, weren’t recorded.

Advice to Biosecurity Minister Damien O’Connor in March last year estimated that only 30-40 percent of farm-to-farm animal movements complied with NAIT. The rate was even lower for farm-to-farm calf sales.

Last year, the Government announced it would try to eradicate M.bovis, which would be a world first, at an estimated cost of almost $900 million. (The bill to taxpayers has already eclipsed $200 million.)

Central to that was fixing NAIT – an animal-tracing partnership between MPI, Dairy NZ, Beef + Lamb NZ, Deer Industry New Zealand, under the umbrella of company OSPRI. OSPRI also runs the country’s TBFree programme.

Gentle pushes, but getting tougher

The results to date have been patchy – despite upbeat Beehive press statements headed “NAIT improvements ramp up” and “Farmers improve biosecurity practice”.

Warning letters have been sent to non-compliant NAIT farmers. 

MPI confirms that between July 2017 and last Friday, 382 infringement notices have been issued. But they don’t provide much of a disincentive – at a $150 fine for tagging offences and $300 for registration breaches.

There have been no prosecutions.

In December last year, NAIT Ltd launched a re-registration project – the biggest change since it was introduced in 2012. Ahead of last month’s Moving Day, on June 1, when large numbers of farmers shift stock, its primary focus was to encourage dairy farmers to re-register.

Yet NAIT confirms that of July 3, out of roughly 14,500 dairy locations, 40 percent, or 5844 locations, hadn’t re-registered. (In total, as at June 21, 56,490 locations were yet to re-register. Most had herds of fewer than 20 animals or none at all, but 7000 locations had more than 100 animals.)

Federated Farmers national vice-president Andrew Hoggard, who has a 540-cow dairy farm near Feilding, in the Manawatu, admits he was caught, initially.

He received notification in the mail but only realised what was being asked for in a meeting with NAIT representatives.

“I don’t know, there’s just so much crap comes through the mailbox you don’t pay attention to it all as much as [you should],” Hoggard says. “I’m certainly re-registered now. But, geez, if I hadn’t have been at that meeting I may have kept on assuming, yeah, I’m registered, I’ve got a NAIT number, I’ve got all this.”

“I managed to find my way through it, mainly through blind luck and clicking on lots of stuff.” – Andrew Hoggard

Re-registering his farm was challenging, Hoggard says, because, unusually, it’s sliced into a couple of hundred titles and he had to click on each one.

“It kept on timing out on me because I couldn’t get them all clicked fast enough before I got timed out. In the end I managed to do it over several attempts.”

NAIT isn’t the most intuitive website, he says. “I managed to find my way through it, mainly through blind luck and clicking on lots of stuff.”

Hoggard’s unimpressed by the thousands of locations that haven’t re-registered, especially those of hobby farmers or lifestyle block owners. “If we have an outbreak of something it can still be significant vector risk.”

He thinks farmers being locked out until they re-register might be the blunt warning or reminder some people need.

NAIT head Kevin Forward says in an emailed statement: “The activation of pushing those who have not re-registered to the re-registration page at login is scheduled for October 2019. OSPRI has also increased the number of customer service representatives in its contact centre and has started calling those farmers who are yet to re-register.”

While no penalties have been handed to those who have not re-registered, he adds: “OSPRI and the Ministry for Primary Industries continue to evaluate this as an option”.

Fixing ‘flaws’

Last week, the Biosecurity Minister announced law changes to strengthen animal tracing – made after an OSPRI-led review and pubilc consultation. O’Connor said in a statement: “The Mycoplasma bovis outbreak is the single biggest biosecurity event New Zealand has faced and it highlighted flaws in the NAIT scheme and Biosecurity Act. We’re putting that right.”

The regulatory impact statement by MPI said the changes would address shortcomings but were “relatively modest”. They would also only be effective when implemented with operational changes to NAIT. In a comment somewhat jarring to the supposed “flawed” scheme, MPI’s director responsible for NAIT Policy, Grant Bryden, tells Newsroom that NAIT’s “fundamentally sound”.

O’Connor wasn’t available for comment, as he was travelling to the United States. But he told Magic Talk radio’s Rural Exchange programme last weekend: “It’s trying to find the right balance between penalising the laggards, the people who blatantly disregard, and trying to put in place better systems that help farmers.

He adds: “We’ve got to make the changes that make that work more clearly, have the rules clear regarding NAIT numbers and properties – not have loopholes that allow people to send away animals without tags.”

Former Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy, from the opposition National Party, says non-compliance is still of concern. “However farmers I’ve spoken to have been frustrated with the NAIT system as it’s clunky to use. The 0800 number has also been swamped with queries and hasn’t coped until recent changes have been made.

“I’m aware that NAIT, industry and Government are working hard to ensure the system is improved and National will be constructive with the next round of changes proposed for Parliament.”

Proposals include a major increase in fines.

Tagging offences will increase from a $150 fee to $400, while $300 for registration offences will increase to $800. The maximum penalties for court cases will increase from $10,000 for individuals and $20,000 for body corporates, to $100,000 and $200,000, respectively. Those fines are thought to be more appropriate for what could be significant biosecurity incursions or food safety issues. (There’s also a new proposed offence – transporting untagged animals without an exemption.)

MPI director Bryden says people in charge of animals are being asked to re-register, as the upcoming law changes will require NAIT numbers to apply to individual parcels of land. “There is time for people to do this over the next few months,” he says in a statement. “Once the law is passed, it will be an offence not to have re-registered.”

Time for more bite?

Hoggard, the Fed Farmers vice president, says NAIT is taken more seriously than two years ago, based on the people he sells cows to. “Even people who have only got one or two animals – lifestyle blocks – they all seem to have the NAIT number ready for me.”

But even some in the rural sector reckon more needs to be done to penalise those who continue to avoid using NAIT.

Former All Black Richard Loe, a host of Magic Talk’s Rural Exchange programme, said on the show last weekend that it’d be great to see authorities get more teeth. “There are too many of these rules and regulations that have no consequence.”

The last 18 months have been extremely stressful for Southland dairy farmer McCallum, after having just come off being under a notice of direction. She claims authorities sometimes had incomplete information when trying to trace her animals and didn’t seem to know how to use their own systems.

“It’s been like talking to a faceless void because you couldn’t get any answers [from Wellington].”

She says NAIT needs upgrading and without it, the system can’t do the job.

“I’m not an IT guru, in any way. I can use what I use. But with New Zealand’s IT intelligence, there must be somebody who can write a programme that is a hang of a lot easier to use than what we’ve got now.

Money is better spent on making NAIT easier to use, “rather than pointing the finger and blaming us”.

(In March, it was reported that only one of 150 farms checked as part of the M.bovis eradication programme had all their NAIT animal movements 100 percent correct. MPI’s Dr Alix Barclay told Stuff the disappointing result highlighted the importance of making the system more user-friendly.)

Significant investment

NAIT boss Forward says it plans to make a significant investment in its systems over the next three years. “The key focus for the next 12 months is on making the system easier to use, ensure the data integrity of the system is upheld, and working with MPI to lift compliance.”

The budget for the coming year is currently with the OSPRI Board for final approval. (“That is good news,” McCallum says, “as long as they follow through.”)

It’s fair to ask whether NAIT Ltd, a Government partnership with industry, can move fast enough, considering what’s at stake, and whether it will get the money it needs.

The company’s operations have reduced in cost from $3.8 million in 2014/15 to $2.1 million last year, albeit with OSPRI spending another $1.3 million last year on “contact centre and compliance”. A two-year OSPRI restructuring – “developed to respond to reduced revenues”, its 2016/17 annual report said – reduced the parent company’s permanent staff from 163 to 106, and contractors from 19 to five.

(Compare NAIT Ltd’s $2.1 million annual budget with MPI’s NAIT-related compliance operations, which was $5.2 million in the last financial year.)

Right now, the country seems well short of its ambition of having a world-class animal tracing system, a system to not only give offshore markets confidence in our agricultural industry, but that can also give New Zealanders confidence that, should the worst happen, the country is ready.

McCallum: “It’s frightening to think if we had a really major biosecurity issue – this is major enough, but if we had something even worse – there is no way they’d be able to follow fast enough or with the systems we’ve got in place at the moment.”

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