NZ Farmer - Farmers could be scared into silence if M bovis information shared

Written by Esther Taunton

Publicly identifying properties infected with the cattle disease Mycoplasma bovis could increase the threat to New Zealand's biosecurity by scaring farmers into silence, the Ministry for Primary Industries says.

At a meeting in South Taranaki on Wednesday, MPI response director Geoff Gwyn said New Zealand's biosecurity system was based on "passive surveillance" and relied on farmers speaking up when something didn't look right.

"If we start to name and shame anyone and we start doing it without being sure that a lot of controls are added, people will stop ringing us.

"If they stop ringing us because they're worried about being named and shamed, we seriously impact the whole biosecurity system, not just for this response but for every subsequent response."

Mycoplasma bovis is an infectious bacterial disease that causes a variety of serious health problems in infected cattle, although it is not transmitted through meat or milk and doesn't pose a threat to humans.

Agriculture and Biosecurity Minister Damien O'Connor announced last week that farmers would be notified if the disease was confirmed on a neighbouring property.

Those farmers were required to sign non-disclosure documents saying they would not use the information for any purpose other than protecting their own farm, Gwyn said.

However, there would be no notification if a neighbour had been issued with a notice of direction and was restricted from moving stock off the property while further testing was carried out. 

"We encourage the farmer to do that but in our view, there is no evidence of disease on the property and what doing is trying to eliminate a risk event," Gwyn said.

"We've got to be very careful about releasing information and making sure it's going to materially help the response."

Where the owner of a property under a notice of direction agreed to the release of information about their status, MPI had done that, Gwyn said.

"But [on] 95 per cent of the properties we've put under movement control, the owner has spoken to their neighbours.  We actively encourage them to do that but we're not putting that information into the public domain when the vast majority of properties will be cleared," he said.

"You're going to damage someone's farm, damage their brand and ultimately it turns out there's nothing wrong with the property, there's no disease."

Since M bovis was identified in New Zealand in July 2017, 53 farms had been confirmed as infected, with 11 of these cleared of stock, disinfected, fallowed and able to be restocked.

In a phased eradication costing $886 million, the Government will cull about 150,000 cattle in an attempt to rid the country of the disease.