Bovine TB: Food Production

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 20th June 2016.

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Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 2:15 pm, 20th June 2016

4. Mr Poots asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for her assessment of the impact of bovine tuberculosis on food production. (AQO 64/16-21)

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

As you are aware, bovine TB is a complex disease and the costliest animal health problem in Northern Ireland. Total programme costs amount to some £27 million to taxpayers and £10 million of compliance costs to farmers. The programme receives around £4 million of funding from the EU each year.

Cattle herds are tested at least annually, and animals that respond positively to the skin test are removed to slaughter, with compensation paid at full market value. In 2015, DARD slaughtered 12,130 animals as a result of TB. That included reactors, negative in contacts and interferon gamma positive-only cattle. I should stress that, at any time, even at current disease levels, around 93% of herds are free from the restrictions associated with TB and open for trading purposes.

I am aware that food production is impacted when a herd has a TB breakdown. Associated losses include the consequential loss of milk and beef production etc when animals are slaughtered prematurely as reactors before the optimum time. In addition, there can be temporary production losses: for example, a drop in milk yield or weight gain as a result of increased testing in a breakdown herd. While that impacts on individual farmers, I stress that the overall programme protects our ability to trade. The value of milk production is some £480 million annually, and the value of the beef sector is around £394 million annually.

It is our aim to eradicate TB from Northern Ireland, but that will be a long-term strategy and industry support will be essential

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank the Minister for her response and wish her well in her role. TB will be one of the biggest challenges moving forward, and there has been no significant improvement over the last 30 years. Minister, you have the TB partnership working group, and I assume that it will look at the full extent of TB and, therefore, that our efforts will not be restricted to the bovine population but extend to the wildlife population in seeking to identify a means of better dealing with TB and driving those figures down towards what they are in the Republic of Ireland and, indeed, Scotland.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his questions. As he said, an industry-led strategic partnership group was established in 2014 to develop a comprehensive and practical long-term TB eradication strategy and implementation action plan to progressively reduce TB levels in cattle here and, ultimately, eradicate the disease from the cattle population in Northern Ireland. The group comprises a chair, four independent members and two DARD ex officio members. The aim is to reduce TB disease levels and costs by the greatest degree in the shortest time using the least resource.

The group is reviewing evidence in preparation for the production of its TB eradiation strategy and subsequent implementation action plan. Although the group was tasked to provide a TB strategy and plan to us by December 2015, the work has proved more complex than originally envisaged. In addition, it wishes to obtain an independent socio-economic analysis of its emerging recommendations before finalising the strategy.

I am disappointed that the work will not be concluded more quickly. It is important that the group has considered all the issues to ensure that a robust and well-considered strategy is produced. I can give a commitment to Members that the issue will be prioritised by me to try to reduce disease levels in the cattle and wildlife population.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

Will the Minister tell us how many incidents of bovine TB there have been this year, how that compares to previous years and whether there has been an increase or decrease?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I do not have the exact figures but, in 2015, 12,130 animals were slaughtered as a result of TB. I can get the exact figures for the Member and provide those to her.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Deputy Speaker

According to the media reports yesterday, there are limited amounts of available vaccine to eradicate or limit TB. Has the Minister made further inquiries about the amounts available and has the Department ruled out the possibility of a cull of badgers to deal with the prevalence of TB?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question. I am aware that there is a global shortage of human and badger BCG vaccine. This has affected supplies in 2016. You will be aware that we use this through the test and vaccinate or remove (TVR) programme in the Banbridge area. I can confirm that, in 2015, DAERA had sufficient badger BCG vaccine for the second year of the TVR projects. In the first and second years of the research, we used the Danish strain of BCG vaccine to vaccinate caught badgers. The current supply of that is unable to fulfill any order for the vaccine in 2016 and there has been an indication that stocks are low. The Welsh Government and DEFRA have suspended their vaccination programmes. However, we have been able to source a limited supply of expired badger BCG Danish vaccine from the Welsh Government for use in our TVR project for 2016. This will provide us with continuity for the research as it progresses into the third year. My officials are in the process of organising a stakeholder event with farmers in the TVR area to update them on the development.

I have not had a conversation with my officials about a cull.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

We have had a disastrous approach to tackling TB from previous Ministers. Today, will you state exactly how you intend to improve on that. You talked about a vaccine. Is there anything else?

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

I ask the Minister to be brief in her response because we are nearing the time for topicals.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for her question. As I have stated, the TB strategic partnership group will be coming back to me in the autumn with recommendations that we hope to look at and move forward on. The TVR programme is ongoing. At the end of this, in addressing this problem, I want to have healthy cattle and badgers and a healthy ecosystem.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I also welcome the Minister to her first Question Time and declare my interest as part-owner of a small herd of cattle and land on which a badger sett stands. What lessons have she and her officials learned from the failure of the cull in England, where, according to Owen Paterson, the badgers moved the goalposts.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

Will the Minister give a very brief response?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question. As he will have heard in my response to the previous Member, I have not had a discussion with officials about a cull. At the moment, the focus has been on the recommendations that are likely to come forward from the group and the TVR project.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

That ends the period for listed questions. We will now move on to 15 minutes of topical questions.