Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann MLA has written to the DAERA Permanent Secretary asking what steps the Department can take to clamp down on the emerging evidence of TB reactor fraud where animal tags are allegedly being swapped.
Mr Swann said that over recent weeks he has been made aware of a number of suspected TB reactor fraud cases. This occurs when the tag of a reactor is swapped with one from a less productive or recently purchased animal.
“The animal that is then presented for mandatory slaughter is not the reactor, which instead remains within the herd or more likely is sold to an unsuspecting buyer,” he added.
“I have also received reports from several dairy and beef farmers recently who have said despite them being given clear tests only a matter of weeks before, after selling a cow or fat animal that animal is supposedly later detected at slaughter as having TB.
“In reality what has happened is the tags from the animal have been swapped with those from an infected one so again the animal presenting at slaughter is not the one that was recently purchased at all.
“Not only is this practice totally illegal but it has also major repercussions for the other farmer as well.
“The farm which the supposedly infected animal was purchased from is immediately closed with a new round of clear tests demanded before they can open again. I have also been told that some vets across Northern Ireland may be aware that this scam exists, but under the current system are powerless to do anything about it unless there is absolutely concrete evidence.
“I am furious that the selfish actions of a very small minority of individuals are undermining the hard work of the vast majority of farmers and damaging efforts to control TB in cattle.
“I can only presume that any farmer who is content to keep an animal that has tested positive in their herd, or even sell it on, doesn’t actually believe bovine TB is a real problem and they are not concerned about the potentially serious consequences.
“I fear the problem may be far bigger than we realise. It only takes a few unscrupulous, but regular, fraudsters to turn it into a widespread problem. If it is being done to any scale I really wonder how it is contributing to the alleged spread of TB across the Province?
“I am confident the vast majority of farmers with TB in their herds are doing the right thing, and it’s reprehensible that anyone should be trying to get around the tough measures that are meant to control TB in cattle. Yet it only takes a small number of farmers to completely undermine all of the controls in place and cause lasting hardship to the others farmers that they are unfairly closing.
“I have now written to Permanent Secretary within DAERA asking him to instruct his Departmental veterinarians to remain on the lookout for these specific criminal behaviours. Detection and successful prosecution, with robust punishments, is the best deterrent we have against anyone considering carrying out illegal tag swapping.”
Responding, a DAERA Spokesperson said:
“DAERA is committed to the control and eradication of TB. It takes seriously any suspected occurrences of fraud. Within the TB Programme there is an organised counter-fraud protocol and in all cases where information is available, investigations are carried out. The actions described by Mr Swann MLA are part of these considerations.
“In order to reduce any potential opportunity for fraud, DAERA veterinary officers routinely DNA tag cattle which have reacted positively at their TB test, and valuation officers DNA tag any other reactors at their subsequent inspection. Spot checks are carried out at the abattoir to compare the DNA sample removed on farm with the carcase.
“We recently consulted on our response to the TBSPG Strategy to eradicate TB in Northern Ireland which recommended private veterinary practitioners (PVPs) be given the powers to also apply DNA tags as soon as a reactor is found. This is already a requirement of the Department public services contract with PVPs. We await final sign off from a Minister and a change in legislation to allow this to also be rolled out across Northern Ireland. We believe that this change would assure the continuity of reactor identification and reduce the risk of errors or fraud, so strengthening disease control.”