The arrival of Mycoplasma bovis has been a huge wake-up call for the country’s animal tracing system. David Williams reports on the drive to improve it.

The writing was on the wall.

In late 2012, only a few months after New Zealand’s national animal tracing scheme was established, frustrations emerged. At Roxburgh’s Mt Benjer sale yard, Otago livestock manager Rob Fowler told TV3 News: “It’s a shambles at the moment.”

Scanning panels that were meant to automatically register ear tags on cattle weren’t working properly, leaving stock agents to manually scan each animal. “It’s slowing the whole sale down, which slows the momentum down,” a frustrated Fowler said, while expressing hope the tracing system would improve with time.

Fast-forward six years and the cattle disease Mycoplasma bovis appears to be spiralling out of control. Last weekend Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor agreed the situation was a disaster and rapid eradication might not be possible. The National Livestock Identification and Tracing Scheme, or NAIT, is in the firing line.

Contacted by Newsroom yesterday, Fowler clearly feels vindicated at raising concerns back in 2012. “I was right, wasn’t I?”

The idea of the national scheme is fine, but not foolproof, he says. He isn’t surprised that tracing of animals is a huge issue in the Government response to the cattle disease. “The tags come out, they hang in fences, they come off trucks. The tags aren’t up to it, and that’s where it all starts.”

Farmers, too, aren’t a fan of NAIT. Fowler: “A lot of stock are actually transferred from farmer-to-farmer and they don’t even worry about it. They haven’t made it user-friendly enough for them to take it on board.”

O’Connor has said NAIT compliance in some areas has been as low as 30 percent, and he’s berated farmers for their “lax” attitude. That’s been paired with lax enforcement. Last December, NZ Farmer reported that only one infringement of $150 had been issued for failing to declare the movement of an animal. O’Connor has ordered Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) officials to take a tougher line and has foreshadowed some farmers being hit with “pretty substantive fines”.

It was announced this week that Mycoplasma bovis – which doesn’t pose any health risks to humans but can have serious effects on infected animals – had reached a farm in the Waikato, a dairying powerhouse. That takes the number of infected properties to 39. With more than 22,000 cattle being culled and suggestions the bill for responding Mycoplasma bovis response might reach $1 billion, a fix for NAIT can’t come soon enough.

NAIT’s genesis

New Zealand’s serious push for a system to monitor livestock movements can be traced back to a hoax. In May 2005, straight after Biosecurity New Zealand ran an exercise simulating a foot-and-mouth outbreak, Prime Minister Helen Clark’s office received a letter saying the disease had been deliberately released on Waiheke Island. A Parliamentary report into the response, dubbed Operation Waiheke, said: “A key issue for the country is an agreement on what is needed in the way of animal and property identification and traceability.”

The NAIT project was formally created the following year. But it took until 2012 for tracing to be formally established for cattle (deer came in the following year), with a three-year transition period for full implementation.

Under the system, electronic ear tags are used to track animals to particular properties. Licensed people load data into the system. As of February, some 90,000 farmers, running 11 million cattle, had registered with NAIT.

The ability to trace individual animals from the point of birth to slaughter is essential for authorities after a disease outbreak, giving them the ability to rapidly track herds that have been exposed to infected animals. Unfortunately, that reason hasn’t resonated with many farmers. Another perceived benefit – that a robust tracing system might lead to higher prices in some overseas markets – hasn’t materialised. Many farmers saw just added cost, complexity and compliance.

“There was a general lack of understanding of the value of NAIT,” says Massey University associate professor Richard Laven, an animal health expert from the School of Veterinary Science. Farmers were asking: “What’s the point of this? What’s this going to do for us?”

In the wake of Mycoplasma bovis, one of NAIT’s key failures has been tracking farm-to-farm movements of calves. Laven says young calves have a low value, which makes the cost of a NAIT tag relatively high. There were threats of fines and prosecution for not adhering to the system, but those threats weren’t followed up. If farmers ignored tagging they avoided the cost – with few consequences.

“Lots of farmers are following it, lots of farmers are doing a good job, but they’ve been let down by the farmers who haven’t,” Laven says.

He doesn’t blame farmers for essentially making a business decision, but says he’s disappointed the message that tracing is essential in a disease outbreak didn’t get through for farmers. Blame for that can go in all directions, he says – farmers, Federated Farmers, DairyNZ, “vets like me” and MPI.

“As a whole, we’ve got to stand up and say, look, that wasn’t good enough, we need to make sure that never happens again,” he says. “It’s a really good system that should be extremely valuable in an outbreak like this – and it has been. The problem is that there’s too much movement of stock that isn’t directly NAIT tagged.”

“No national animal identification scheme is going to work if people are allowed to get away with not recording, and that’s what’s happened.” – Richard Laven

A review of NAIT, undertaken by a so-called technical user group and headed by ex-Fonterra chairman Sir Henry van der Heyden, was publicly released last month. (Minister O’Connor pointedly said it was only finalised and released after he asked for it.)

Problems highlighted by the report include the fact registration of farms is voluntary, that farmers using third-party services are not alerted to rule breaches and the use of multiple tag numbering systems. NAIT draws on multiple web collection systems, like Farms Online, AgriBase and MINDA, to identify farms and animals.

The 40 recommendations to improve the scheme expose fundamental flaws. For example, it asks for: a ban on animals being sent to other properites without a current NAIT number; making it an offence to use tags from another location; the development of a centralised system for reporting and monitoring lost tags; and regular field inspections.

The infringement regime should be reviewed, the report said. Current NAIT data could lead to immediate enforcement action, the report said, for animals tagged but not registered in the system and movements not recorded within the mandatory 48 hours.

Despite the seriousness of the identified problems, and the recent Mycoplasma bovis outbreak, the report’s language is soft on the scheme’s uptake. NAIT is described as having an “emerging status” and the level of appreciation of a well-functioning animal tracing scheme is “less evolved” in New Zealand. The report even says NAIT’s relatively poor performance, compared to overseas schemes, is “acceptable”, “since the NAIT was only introduced four years ago (sic) and the transition period for bringing cattle into the NAIT ended on 30 June 2015”.

That’s a bit of a cop-out for Massey University’s Laven. The system works, he says, and New Zealand would have learnt lessons from overseas schemes. “No scheme is perfect, but the basic problem and the reason [it failed] is that people were able to get away with not following the regulations. No national animal identification scheme is going to work if people are allowed to get away with not recording, and that’s what’s happened.”

Rolls Royce scheme

Southland farmer Jeff Grant is the chairman of Crown and industry-funded agency Ospri, which is responsible for NAIT. He was on one of the earliest working parties considering the shape of a national livestock tracing scheme.

Grant sticks up for NAIT, saying there’s about 96 percent compliance for stock going to slaughter and 94 percent for stock going through sale yards. Between 1000 and 2000 transactions are recorded each day.

But he admits farm-to-farm movements have been a problem from “day one”. He puts that down to the “Rolls Royce” scheme adopted by the Government which, he says, has driven down compliance.

It all comes down to legs. NAIT demands a “two-legged” transaction – that livestock movements are recorded off one farm and onto the buyer’s farm. Grant wants to see – and the NAIT review recommends – a “one-legged” scheme, under which only the receiver logs movements.

That’s not to excuse a lack of enforcement. “In terms of setting up NAIT, drawing up the software for the programme and implementation, I would have said the level of investment for compliance was low,” Grant says.

OSPRI chairman Jeff Grant. Photo: Supplied

While decisions about prosecutions sit with MPI, OSPRI’s subsidiary NAIT Ltd is responsible for handling data and undertaking animal health monitoring and surveillance. Grant says OSPRI has to put its hand up and say enforcement “should have been at a higher level”.

There’s general agreement that New Zealand was “lucky” to get Mycoplasma bovis and not something more serious.

Massey’s Laven says it’s disappointing it took such an outbreak to persuade people NAIT needed to be enforced properly, but it’s the wake-up call the country needed. He adds: “What on earth are you doing buying calves that you’ve got no idea where they came from? In the modern age it’s not acceptable.”

Lincoln University honorary professor of agri-food systems Keith Woodford, who believes Mycoplasma bovis might have originated in Southland, says a foot-and-mouth outbreak would be of huge national significance. “The exchange rate would crash, the whole economy would be in a hell of a fix, and that is something that the whole nation would have to deal with.”

A 2003 Reserve Bank report predicted meat exports would collapse by 80 percent in the first six months after a foot-and-mouth outbreak, reducing New Zealand’s gross domestic product by billions. It would take almost two years to recover.

‘Failed abysmally’

On Monday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at her post-Cabinet press conference that NAIT “failed abysmally” and the system, set up under a National Party-led coalition, was underfunded and deeply flawed.

National’s agriculture spokesman Nathan Guy, a former MPI minister, responds by criticising the Government for not acting more quickly on the recommendations of the NAIT review. But he says it’s clear farm-to-farm movements haven’t been good enough. “There are some ratbags in the industry and they will get dealt to.”

Guy says the Government’s claims that National had underfunded the biosecurity system was “complete nonsense”, saying it received the highest level of funding ever in last year’s Budget at $248 million, while the previous government had also put 50 more people on the front line.

“We’ve done a huge amount and I’m ashamed that the Prime Minister hasn’t got her facts right and is using this as a political wedge.”

Guy is agitating for Government action. He’s concerned the minister has had the NAIT report for almost 60 days and officials haven’t reported back to him. “If this was urgent, like it was when we were in government to deal with getting Christchurch back on their feet, you’d put urgent legislation into the Parliament and make the necessary changes.”

For his part, OSPRI chairman Grant says it has already committed money to revamping the tracing scheme’s software and the changes will start soon.

Massey’s Laven says implementing recommendations of the NAIT review – which he says is a good report – will probably take the Government and industry several years. “It’s probably better to do them slowly and effectively, rather than trying to do everything at once and then failing to do all of them.”

However, back at the stock yards, Otago livestock agent Rob Fowler isn’t convinced there’s much hope for his old enemy, the NAIT scheme. He says “pass” when asked about the chances of it being improved. “I’d just about put it in the too-hard basket, to be honest.”

– Additional reporting by Sam Sachdeva

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

Leave a comment