Farmers selling cattle on the black market, and not complying with the National Animal Identification and Tracing (NAIT) regime are hampering the Ministry for Primary Industries’ efforts to respond to Mycoplasma bovis, now New Zealand’s largest animal biosecurity surveillance issue.

“We do have, unfortunately, quite a black market of cows sold for cash,” Geoff Gwyn, director of readiness and response at the Ministry for Primary Industries, told the primary production committee at parliament today. While only a small minority of farmers are involved, it’s an important factor. “We’re looking at bank records, taking affidavits.”

Head of Biosecurity New Zealand Roger Smith says trying to bring M. bovis under control has been “very challenging” because of the level of non-authorised stock movements and modern farm practices which mean cows are moved frequently to where the grass is best.

In particular, there is a poor record of NAIT tracing of calf movements, Smith says. “And calves are a vector for the disease.”

In some cases a farmer would have a record of a calf being born but no information on where it went. “If they have gone to the dairy herd, they may show up [with the disease] in three years.”

Mycoplasma bovis is a common disease in cattle all over the world, including in Australia. It does not infect humans and presents no food safety risk, but can have serious effects on infected animals, including mastitis, pneumonia, arthritis and late-term abortions.

In particular there is a poor record of NAIT tracing of calf movements. And calves are a vector for the disease.

It was also a challenge because unlike a disease such as foot and mouth, there could be little outward sign of infection, or it may display as a secondary illness such as mastitis or pneumonia.

“It’s a very difficult disease to find,” Smith says. “You could have perfectly healthy animals that showed no signs.” Definitive testing takes 60 days unless the cow is dissected. “You have to take the head off the animal.”

As of the start of this month, MPI has paid a total of $3.3 million in compensation to 22 farmers. It previously estimated the outbreak could cost about $95 million in tracking and tracing the spread of the disease and paying compensation.

Some 22,000 cows are being culled, with about 11,000 animals destroyed so far. To put that in perspective, MPI officials say about 1 million cows are killed each year, and the present cull is no worse than what might occur in a drought. 

As of today, 38 farms are actively infected, 77 are under a restricted place notice and 225 are under notice of direction, a slightly lesser restriction. Almost 1,700 properties are deemed of interest because of risk events or because they were adjacent to infected properties.

Six days ago we had 129 properties under some sort of regulation control. Now we have moved that to 299.

Developments over the last week have been a game changer in terms of the spread of the disease, with confirmed infection in North Canterbury – a new region – and on a second North Island farm, near Palmerston North.

“Six days ago we had 129 properties under some sort of regulation control. Now we have moved that to 299,” Smith says.

Based on genotyping work, all the infections were the same strain of Mycoplasma bovis. 

MPI believes the bacterial disease first arrived in New Zealand in December 2015, although it’s hard to tell where it arrived from. Because the disease is endemic in other countries and not considered a particular threat, MPI’s counterparts in other countries don’t have the same DNA databases that they tended to hold for diseases such as Foot and Mouth, Smith says.

MPI is currently working on recommendations from a review of NAIT and expects to have more idea of the best way to respond to Mycoplasma bovis in coming weeks. While all options are still on the table, developments in recent days meant MPI was looking more seriously at long-term management and containment, rather than eradication, Smith says.

Talking at the hearing this morning, acting committee chair and former MPI minister Nathan Guy said some meat processors were charging $200 per animal to process infected cattle, which Gwyn says reflects the need for decontamination at the plant.

Guy asked whether MPI could provide a “letter of intent” to rural lenders worried about the weakened finances of an infected farm. However, Smith said while the ministry was happy to meet with a farmer and their bank, it wouldn’t provide a letter because of potential liabilities before compensation was set.

Gwyn said he wasn’t aware of any restricted farm being foreclosed by its bank, to which Guy said: “Well, the caveat is yet.”

Leave a comment