One hundred warning letters have been sent to farmers who continue to ignore the national animal tracking system. Meanwhile, official documents show what ex-minister Nathan Guy knew about the efficacy of NAIT – and when. David Williams reports.

In February 2012, New Zealand First MP Barbara Stewart gave a short address in Parliament as the National Animal Identification and Tracing (NAIT) Bill was introduced.

“Any law that we pass here must be able to be enforced,” she told her fellow lawmakers. “We really cannot afford to have any cutbacks in the area of enforcement staff, if this law is to be successful. We want the process to be workable, otherwise, as previous speakers have said, this is a total waste of time.”

Stewart would be proved right, in a biosecurity disaster that will end up costing taxpayers more than $500 million.

The discovery of the cattle disease Mycoplasma bovis in July last year, and the Ministry for Primary Industries’ (MPI) failed attempt to contain the outbreak, exposed flaws in the NAIT system. Lax enforcement from authorities was paired with a lax attitude from some farmers.

In May, the Government announced it would try to eradicate the disease, culling some 152,000 animals at a cost to taxpayers and industry of $886 million.

Ten days earlier, Agriculture and Biosecurity Minister Damien O’Connor pledged to fix NAIT – a system, he said, had “let us down in a time of great need”. There would also be a tougher approach to NAIT compliance, he promised.

That enforcement is stepping up a gear.

Noticeable improvement

At the end of June, NAIT Ltd, the partly taxpayer-funded company responsible for implementing the scheme, sent 100 warning letters to farmers identified as non-compliant from the analysis of tracing data. That included a notice to conform with the NAIT Act within 30 days.

MPI’s manager of animal welfare compliance Gray Harrison says: “Overall, from the 100 farmers that received the letters, there has been a noticeable improvement in compliance. Sixty-eight farmers have addressed the requirements, 31 have contacted OSPRI to seek assistance to address their requirements and 20 cases have been referred to MPI for further investigation.”

As of last Friday, MPI’s compliance checks had led to 19 infringement notices being issued, with a further 17 investigations underway. Most notices were for failing to record a movement within 48 hours, some of which related to March’s Operation Cook Strait.

Other offences include failing to register or tag a NAIT animal, which can attract fines of $150 or $300, per animal.

NAIT uses electronic ear tags to track animals to particular properties. Data is manually loaded into the system by licensed people. In a disease outbreak like M. bovis, animal tracing gives authorities the ability to rapidly track herds that have been exposed to infected animals.

(The cattle disease has serious health effects on infected animals but doesn’t pose a health risk to humans.)

The previous National-led Government was panned for its soft approach to NAIT compliance. Last December, Stuff reported there had only been one $150 fine issued since 2012 for failing to declare the movement of an animal.

Despite the Ministry’s previously tough language – that “there is a zero tolerance for not using NAIT” – Harrison says MPI and NAIT are working to “encourage” farmers to keep cattle movement records up to date and comply with NAIT. “Education and enforcement are both important to improving levels of compliance.”

What Guy knew, and when

Biosecurity Minister O’Connor has ordered officials to improve NAIT, including making it easier for farmers to use.

The Government has already reorganised MPI, making Biosecurity New Zealand a stand-alone unit. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Government has been quick to criticise the previous, National-led coalition for the spread of M. bovis. Ardern described a “shameful” neglect and under-investment in biosecurity under National.

Official briefings to former Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy show what he knew about the efficacy of NAIT – and when.

In March 2016 the three-year, “implementation transition phase” of NAIT ended. A briefing paper prepared that month updated Guy on an upcoming NAIT review. The paper said farmers frequently raised concerns with NAIT, “including problems with the ear tags (being lost or not read properly) and a lower rate of recorded farm-to-farm movements”.

Officials briefed Guy again in August, ahead of his meeting with Sir Henry van der Heyden, who would chair the NAIT review steering committee, and Michelle Edge, chief executive of OSPRI, NAIT Ltd’s parent company. Ear tag loss was an “ongoing concern”, the briefing said. It also said: “There is a lower rate of recorded movements of livestock from farm-to-farm due to a lack of scanner equipment adoption, lack of incentive, and lack of enforcement.” The August 2016 briefing said the review’s final recommendations should be delivered the following April.

But in May last year, Guy was told in another briefing that the review was delayed and final recommendations would be with the Minister and industry bodies in “early 2018”. The briefing said compliance needed to “step up”, considering NAIT had had time to “bed in”.  

There was “good agreement” on the recommended changes, which would make it easier to use the system and improve compliance, the paper said. “This will improve the traceability performance of NAIT.”

Newsroom contacted Guy’s office for comment yesterday, to ask if his Government was too soft on farmers by not enforcing NAIT, but the Ōtaki MP didn’t respond.

NAIT OIA by David Williams on Scribd

The NAIT review report was completed in April this year, but only after O’Connor demanded the review committees finalise their recommendations.

(A defensive OSPRI statement said in April: “It is not possible to conclude that the late delivery of the NAIT review report has directly resulted in greater impacts on the overall management of Mycoplasma bovis response.”)

O’Connor’s office tells Newsroom the majority of NAIT review recommendations are operational. A smaller number of recommendations are likely to require law or regulation changes, which MPI intends to consult on later this year. “The focus is on making the changes as quickly as possible.”

Last weekend, Guy told Radio Live’s Rural Exchange programme that National would support the Government’s “necessary” changes to NAIT. He maintained there was “not too much wrong” with the system but, ironically, questioned MPI’s enforcement.

As of last Friday, the total properties infected with M. bovis had lifted to 56, the bulk of which are in Canterbury (28) and Southland (15). Only 39 are considered “active” – the balance have been depopulated, cleaned and had restrictions lifted. Compare that with early January, when only 14 farms were confirmed as infected.

The need to trace cattle, and know where they come from, is more urgent than ever. Many will be hoping the politicians can set aside their differences to ensure the changes to NAIT are swift, tough and enduring.

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

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