Skip to main content

Bovine Tuberculosis

Volume 720: debated on Thursday 22 July 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the practice of skin testing for bovine tuberculosis followed by the slaughter of reactors will eliminate the disease from the national herd.

Tuberculin skin tests are the internationally accepted standard for detecting TB. Many countries have eradicated TB using a test and slaughter approach. In England, evidence suggests that without addressing the disease in badgers, it will be impossible to eradicate TB in cattle. The department has committed to developing affordable options for a carefully managed and science-led policy of badger control in areas with high and persistent levels of bovine TB.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that response. There is evidence that the present testing regime correctly identifies the presence of tuberculosis within a herd, but no longer identifies all the infected animals so that after a series of tests, a residue of infection is left within the herd which can continue to spread the disease despite the removal of the identified animals. Will the noble Lord ask the Government to conduct a thorough review of the implications of this? The existing regime is not satisfactory and there are managerial consequences for biosecurity on the farm. Although this programme was very successful half a century ago, it is not working now. We are effectively burning pound notes.

My Lords, I accept that there are occasions when using the current test—what I have described as the internationally accepted comparative test—that some cattle are missed. If we move to another test, known as the single test, there is a possibility of a greater number of what are described as false positives, which again would not be satisfactory. A further test is used, a blood test which is known as the gamma test, and we can look at it. I can give my noble friend an assurance that we will look at all three, but for the moment we think that the comparative test is the best one to use.

My Lords, I declare an interest as an associate member of the British Veterinary Association. Does my noble friend agree that blood testing is a good alternative or addition to skin testing and reveals more reactors? Will he consider a Defra policy of blood testing as well as skin testing in bovine TB hot spots, particularly where the badger population is considerable?

My Lords, my noble friend, I think, refers to the gamma interferon blood test, which is used alongside the tuberculin skin test in certain prescribed circumstances to improve the sensitivity of the testing regime and identify more affected animals more quickly. I shall certainly look at whether it is possible to use that test solely, but, as I said earlier, for the moment, we believe that the comparative tests that we are using are possibly the best.

My Lords, will the Minister join me in welcoming the sharp, 25 per cent decline in bovine TB which is recorded in today’s Farmers Guardian, for example. Given that Defra has shelved its own vaccination project, will the Minister assure us that the department will continue strongly to support vaccination and assist those farmers who wish to use it?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct to say that there has been a decline. Addressing bovine TB still involves great expense, in compensation, testing, research and surveillance. Something of the order of £63 million was spent on it in 2009-10. Some £29.9 million has been invested over the years in vaccine development. We shall continue to work on vaccine development and encourage others to do so as well.

The noble Baroness has absolutely stumped me. I do not know whether foxes and rabbits can spread bovine TB. We know that badgers are the principal problem, which is why we want to address them first, but if there is a problem in foxes and rabbits, I am sure that we will look at that as well.

My Lords, before breeding cattle are imported into this country, are they sufficiently checked to make sure that they have certificates stating that they are free from TB, and, if not, why not?

My Lords, my understanding is that when breeding cattle are imported—the same would be true of export—the single test would be used. As I have said, that test can be more accurate, but it leads to more false positives. However, in the cases to which my noble friend refers, a false positive would be better than missing some of the others.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned budgets. Will he update us on the Government’s latest position on making progress against badgers if they are going to do so?

My Lords, we are looking at all the relevant key evidence, including the published scientific evidence from what was referred to as the “randomised badger culling trial” and subsequent post-trial analysis. Having looked at that, we will draw up proposals. We will then consult on them and consider the best way forward.

My Lords, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a rigorous attack was made on bovine TB, consisting of the double intradermal test, strict regulation of movement of cattle, the attested herd scheme and the TT scheme for milk production. I had the pleasure of participating in that as a young vet. We very nearly eliminated TB from the United Kingdom. It was only when it got into wildlife and badgers in particular that it went astray.

Does the Minister agree that an even more rigorous campaign to attack TB in cattle is now necessary, because it is causing great harm to most producers?

My Lords, we have every intention of attacking the problem vigorously, but whatever we do will be based on the science that is put before us. We will make sure that we understand that science and act on it.

Does the Minister accept that one of the problems with skin testing for tuberculosis in both animals and man is that it does nothing more than indicate that the individual has at some stage been infected with tuberculosis but cannot, under all circumstances, indicate the presence of an active infection, because the infection may well have died out some time ago?

My Lords, the noble Lord knows far more about these matters than many in the House and I listen to him with great respect. I shall certainly take on board what he says. As I said, at the moment we believe that the comparative test is the right one but, as the noble Lord well knows, there are other tests at which we can, and will, look.