Minister must take action on TB: Ritchie

Margaret Ritchie MP
Margaret Ritchie MP

SDLP MP Margaret Ritchie has called on Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Michelle O’Neill to take action to resolve the problems facing beef farmers in South Down whose herds have been closed down due to TB.

Ms Ritchie also urged the minister to publish the DARD report into the causes of such an incidence.

The South Down representative said: “I have been contacted by several farmers who have informed me about the incidence of TB in cattle located in areas which were previously not associated with this issue, or where cattle herds were clear from this animal health disease.

“Those same farmers have also told me that cattle have been put down due to Tuberculosis. The farming community feel that DARD has not acted in their interests in relation to this matter and they want concrete action to protect the beef industry in South Down.

“Farmers have suffered undue serious hardship with herds being closed down, and as a result many producers have also had to endure financial loss since they could not sell their cattle or earn their proper financial value on the open market.

“Farmers are quite justified in asking what is the Minister for Agriculture and her officials doing or what action they are taking to address and protect the local beef industry in places like South Down.

“DARD were supposed to collect and publish all laboratory reports of post-mortem results so that the farming community and the general public were informed about the cause of the TB – whether it was related to wildlife such as Badgers, or if it was a different strain or type of TB.

“So far, neither the minister or her officials have published such reports. Again, farmers are asking questions about why has there been a delay or a failure on the part of the Minister and DARD to publish such reports.”

Ms Ritchie added: “Both the Minister for Agriculture and her officials need to adopt a more authoritative approach; take control of this TB issue and protect our local beef farming industry including producers in South Down.”

Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill defended her department’s position on bovine TB, explaining that her Department instigates an appropriate response to any change in the disease situation in an individual herd or in a geographical area.

She said: “Every TB breakdown is subject to an epidemiological assessment by a DARD veterinary officer and specific public and animal health advice is provided. A veterinary investigation is carried out for all confirmed TB breakdowns and, as a result, disease control measures are instigated to prevent spread to and from other herds. Where possible we ascertain the TB strain type of each confirmed reactor and the results are made available to the DARD veterinary officer concerned. We also make post mortem and laboratory test results, including strain type information, available to the farmer during the course of a confirmed TB breakdown.

“Due to the complex and multifactorial nature of the disease in many cases it is not possible to determine a single cause of infection for every TB breakdown with a reasonable degree of certainty. However, thanks to published research over the years, the main risk factors for a herd having a TB breakdown are well known and advice on how farmers can better protect their herd is publicised on the DARD website. DARD also provides this biosecurity advice during farm visits and TB related advice leaflets are also made available to farmers.”

The minister explained that the distribution of strain types and the infection sources for bTB herd breakdowns are already published in the Bovine Tuberculosis in NI Annual Report for 2013.

DARD has undertaken a number of significant TB research projects over recent years and the reports of these are published on the DARD website.

The minister continued: “I have made it repeatedly clear that it is my objective to progressively reduce the levels of TB here with the ultimate aim of eradication of this scourge from our cattle herds. That is why I have commissioned a TB Strategic Partnership Group (TBSPG) to prepare such an eradication strategy and an implementation action plan.

“The TBSPG under an independent chair and with farmer, veterinary and scientific representation, has already commenced its important work and has recently sought and obtained initial input from industry representative organisations and interested individuals.”