I wish to inform the House that I have received evidence suggesting that a very small minority of farmers in the south-west and midlands have been illegally swapping cattle eartags to retain TB test-positive animals in their herds and sending other less productive animals to slaughter in their place. The suspected fraudulent activity is now subject to formal investigations.
If this kind of practice is taking place it is totally unacceptable. We are taking immediate action to prevent activity of this kind happening in future, and any farmer who tries to cheat the system should know that they will be identified and prosecuted. I should stress that the health risks to consumers from this suspected fraud are very low.
Anyone who retains TB test-positive cattle increases the risk of disease spread within their herd, to their neighbours’ herds, and to wildlife. We are moving quickly to introduce new measures to prevent this occurring in future.
In particular, from mid-April DNA tags will be applied immediately to cattle that test positive for TB. This quick action is only possible because of the commitment and support of the veterinary profession, for which I am grateful. Animal Health will then cross-check on a random sample basis and, where there is any suspicion of eartag tampering, the DNA of TB test-positive animals against the DNA of animals sent to slaughter.
I would emphasise that the vast majority of cattle farmers fully comply with TB control measures, but their considerable and tireless efforts to help us control this terrible disease risk being undermined by an irresponsible minority. I am confident that our quick and decisive action, including the DNA tagging of TB reactors, will help protect the interests of all cattle farmers.