The technical advisory group overseeing the attempted eradication of M. bovis believes the world-first attempt is feasible, according to its recent findings. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

The Government says it is heartened by initial signs of success in its battle to eradicate Mycoplasma bovis – but it will not know until 2025 whether it has managed to eliminate the cattle disease from New Zealand.

The positivity comes after the technical advisory group overseeing the response to the M. bovis outbreak, initially divided on the chances of success, said “substantial progress” had been made since the initial decision.

In May, Ardern announced the Government would take a “phased eradication” approach at a cost of $886 million, which if successful would make New Zealand the first country in the world to successfully get rid of the disease entirely.

A summary of the key findings from the technical advisory group, whose draft report will not be released until next year, says eradication of the disease is feasible, with “substantial progress” made since the eradication decision was made.

The group says there is evidence to suggest the National Animal Identification and Tracing (NAIT) system is improving, after earlier concerns over low levels of compliance with the stock tracking system.

There are currently 32 active infected properties, with 51 cleared of the disease so far.

“We undertook together to do something that no one else attempted to so before…[to] have the technical advisory group say, ‘You’re on track’, is a good feeling.”

Ardern said the advisory group’s findings were more optimistic than six months ago, with the evidence suggesting there had been only a “single and relatively recent incursion” from late 2015 to early 2016.

Two testing programmes set up to determine the spread of M. bovis had found no undetected clusters of the disease, while the spring bulk testing programme on all 11,300 dairy farms had found only three infected properties.

“We undertook together to do something that no one else attempted to so before, so to then have 70,000 tests undertaken and to come back and then have the technical advisory group say, ‘You’re on track’, is a good feeling,” Ardern said.

“It’s not over but we feel we’ve made the right decision.”

Biosecurity Minister Damien O’Connor said the Government still expected to find more infected herds, with testing and monitoring necessary for five years beyond 2020 “when we think we should have a very good indication that we’re on top of this”.

O’Connor said the advisory group had suggested that it would be difficult to identify the origin of the disease in New Zealand, with efforts better spent on eradication.

“We don’t want to put a huge amount of resource into an exercise that may not deliver, when in fact we can put that resource into eradication and it will deliver.”

NAIT compliance lifting

One shortcoming highlighted by the M. bovis outbreak has been problems and low compliance levels with the NAIT scheme.

However, O’Connor said there had been a 20 percent increase in the use of the NAIT system in the last year, with 27 new compliance officers working with farmers and cracking down on offenders.

“I think there was one infringement notice prior to us coming into government, there have been many of them now  – I think the message has got out there very clearly, get on, do the right thing, adhere to NAIT and we’ll all be able to help one another.”

DairyNZ chairman Jim van der Poel, who stood alongside Ardern and O’Connor with Beef + Lamb NZ chairman Andrew Morrison in a show of unity, said there was now a better understanding amongst farmers of the importance of the tracking system.

“I think you’ll find in the farmer base there’s a lot more awareness now about how important it [the NAIT scheme] is.”

“Before this, people knew about it but it was a nice to have, and they probably weren’t as vigilant about it.

“I think the fact more people are being prosecuted or infringement notices being sent out has helped, but I think you’ll find in the farmer base there’s a lot more awareness now about how important it is.”

While there could be “a few people who come along kicking and screaming”, van der Poel said the industry as a whole understood the importance of meeting the standards.

Ardern said there had not been any change to the estimated cost of the M. bovis response, while concerns over compensation had been addressed by speeding up a “significant proportion” of payments.

About $37 million had been paid out to date, with O’Connor hopeful another $7m would be given to farmers before Christmas.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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