Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine

TB Eradication Programme: Discussion

Mr. Conor Geraghty:

I will explain that by talking about humans. If I have influenza or a cold, and I come in here and give the virus to more than one person, it will spread. If I give it to less than one person, it will not spread. Basically, it is an epidemiological matter.

We have a very good control programme at the moment. When the animal health computer system was introduced in 2004, it gave the Department full traceability of all animals and allowed for much faster tracing of animals that were sold from an infected herd. If such animals can be traced forward, they can be tested before they get a chance to spread disease in a herd. This also allows back-tracing for lesions, etc., to take place. It all ties in with the aim of the tagging. The animal health computer system is the glue that binds it all together. As part of each herd test, we actively manage and fix any discrepancies on the system. It is part of our contract to fix these discrepancies or account for discrepancies on the system in real time, before the test is reported within 72 hours. That has allowed us to bring our level down. The fairly significant progress that was made between 2004 and 2014 has allowed us to talk about eradication now. It is unfortunate that the programme all those years ago was called an eradication programme, because we did not really have the ability to put in place an eradication programme until we reached the level we are at now.

We have been asked whether the current programme is capable of eradicating TB. I concur with Professor More that if we continue to do everything we are doing at the moment, we will eradicate it. However, the science indicates to us that it will probably be 2060 or 2070 before that happens. It is a question of whether the programme should be ramped up in order to achieve eradication more quickly and, if so, what the ramifications of that would be. As vets, we are primarily scientists, so it makes perfect sense to us to ramp up the programme to try to get rid of a disease more quickly. When we speak to other stakeholders around the table, however, we realise that there is a cost-benefit element to this. It is a question of who will meet the cost of imposing severe restrictions on certain farms. Will those farmers be compensated? The representative bodies will have their say on that. I sit on the TB forum on behalf of Veterinary Ireland. When these issues have been discussed at that forum, proposals such as risk-based trading and herd classification have been severely resisted by farm organisations in general because there is no clear path setting out how farmers will be compensated for the immediate losses they will suffer if such restrictions are introduced.

It makes sense for us to try to contain disease where it is and then to eradicate it. It would have to work better in practice before bringing it from a reproductive rate of 1.16 to just under one. We have not seen the cost-benefit analysis yet. An independent study is being commissioned by a forum to see about cost-sharing and such.

The Deputy's second point was about the risk-based approach, which makes sense. On the difference in testing animals and testing herds, once a herd is infected, rather than leaving animals in a herd undetected because the test is imperfect, it is important to realise that the herd is infected. It is then de-restricted but it is still higher risk. If we treat it on a herd basis then we have a better chance to take necessary steps, especially with herds with chronic TB, and to do something for biosecurity. The recommendations from the forum include biosecurity advice for farmers for those herds and the use of the pre-movement tests, which would help in those isolated cases of herds with chronic TB or which have been recently infected, to try to prevent the spread of TB from those herds into the 97% of herds that do not have TB.

The Chairman asked about the time spent testing for TB. We are talking about average figures here. Some 7 million tests are done in Ireland on approximately 1,000 batches of 7,000 cattle per annum. There are approximately 100,000 herds, which is approximately 100 herds per veterinarian. That is two herds of 70 per week per vet working in cattle practice. I know that individual vets do much more than that while other vets do less than that. It was a central part of veterinary practice for a long time. Veterinary practices over the past two decades have diversified and expanded into companion animals, retail sales, herd health advice and some vets do factory work. It is of relatively lesser importance to veterinary practice than it was but it is still important. If one looks at costings in the Department papers, one third of veterinary jobs could be financially affected by that, which would reduce service. The main issue that large animal practice has in Ireland with regard to TB testing is that it fills the quieter times of the year because we are a seasonal calving and lambing country, unlike our European colleagues with year-round systems. We need many vets from now until 1 May and maybe again in November and December. There is not a lot to do in the rest of the year, which is the main issue in Ireland, if there was not TB testing and temporary veterinary inspector work.

Deputy Cahill asked about Johne's disease. The sensitivity of the test and its ability to find positive animals is much lower than our TB skin test. That is widely known. It is quite high for false positives, at more than 90%. When we are testing for Johne's disease, we are looking to find an infected herd over a period of five years rather than infected animals. Once one has determined which herds are infected, one concentrates, through management, on reducing infection in those herds with the veterinary risk management and action plan. In negative herds, one concentrates on trying to give best advice to prevent them from becoming infected by buying in the organism. It is a difficult disease to manage once it is in. In 2005, we estimated that approximately 18% of Irish herds were infected with Johne's disease. From our initial figures from the pilot programme that Animal Health Ireland, AHI, did over the past five years, it is now 27%, so it is expanding. The current programme is quite good at helping individual farmers with infected herds to contain it within their herds. The problem we have with it as a programme is that we feel that there is a threshold above which it will be impossible to reduce the level of Johne's disease in Irish herds to a negligible amount over ten to 20 years. Much of the increase from 18% to 27% can be accounted for by dairy expansion. There was a lot of movement and trade.

We believe that now is the time to take the hard decision. A study from Teagasc for AHI a couple of years ago determined that a programme that would work and deliver the action needed to reduce Johne's disease in the national herd would cost approximately €13 million a year. Unfortunately, less than €1 million a year is allocated so while the programme we have is good for individual farms that are infected, we have concerns about the prevalence at a national level. We support the programme because any reduction in Johne's disease is good but it may not reduce the national prevalence and may miss that threshold time opportunity that we have. I will let others answer the other questions.