Mycoplasma outbreak highlights flaws

The formation of an action group to provide a voice for and to assist Southland farmers understand and deal with Mycoplasma bovis is a positive move.

It is good to see farmers, veterinarians and other members of the industry working together in the quest to eradicate the bacterial cattle disease.

Eradication remains the focus of the Ministry for Primary Industries and so it should, given the implications of the disease not only for  New Zealand’s rural sector, but also the country as a whole.

Whether that is possible is another matter and, as time marches on, unfortunately eradication seems less likely.

It is now six months since it was announced the disease had been detected for the first time in New Zealand on a Van Leeuwen Dairy Group property, near Waimate.

Van Leeuwen Dairy Group principals Aad and Wilma van Leeuwen have recently spoken  in the media saying they want to see other affected farmers and the industry move on. They have described it as "not the end of the world", and Aad van Leeuwen called for an end to "this madness".

Nearly every other dairy farming country in the world has the disease and they believe it is now a case of learning to manage it.

There is no doubt the disease is prevalent globally but the fact is that New Zealand supposedly has been free of it until the dairy group detection — although the van Leeuwens believe it has been here for a long time.

The newly-formed action group MASS (Mycoplasma bovis Action & Support Southland) says the disease can have a "terrible" effect on the wellbeing of cattle, and require the increased use of antibiotics.

In an era where the spotlight is firmly being shined on farming practices — including animal welfare and the use of antibiotics — and the desire for healthy food products is burgeoning, New Zealand’s reputation as a high-quality food producer must be preserved at all costs.

It is good to see that a national milk-surveillance programme will start on February 1, with MPI testing three samples of milk from every dairy farm.

The testing and tracing regime will provide a clearer indication of the disease’s spread by the end of February, Agriculture and Biosecurity Minister Damien O’Connor says.

As the number of confirmed properties continues to rise and now stands at 18 — and more are expected to be found — just how costs and compensation are going to work is unknown.

The costs of the response itself must surely be escalating into the millions of dollars and that is without tackling the thorny issue of compensation for affected farmers, how that is going to work and who will pay for it.

Affected farmers can apply for compensation for "verifiable" losses relating to the MPI exercising its legal powers under the Biosecurity Act. Thousands of cows have already been slaughtered, although MPI put a halt to that as further infected properties were found.

This outbreak has highlighted many issues, including the speed of the response, criticism that MPI officials do not understand farming, and gaping holes in the National Animal Identification and Tracing Scheme (NAIT)  that traces the movements of cattle and deer throughout the country.

Tracing stock movements should have been a simple task if the scheme was working effectively. As Federated Farmers president Katie Milne says, making NAIT easier to comply with would be a "great step forward" — that will hopefully happen with moves to streamline the process coming in tandem with a tougher approach on non-compliance.

This outbreak has shown that farmers must take this very seriously and understand the importance of the scheme for biosecurity. But the scheme itself must be easy to comply with.

It has also shown that if, heaven forbid, an outbreak of foot and mouth disease was to occur in New Zealand, our agricultural industry could well be destroyed. 

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