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March 2006

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SHAMBLES OF BOVINE TB TESTING REGIME

The Ben Bradshaw statement on the Kremers' calf calls into question the entire bovine TB testing regime. With tens of thousands of cattle slaughtered over the years, Westcountry livestock farmers are questioning if the tests on their animals were carried out correctly in the past - and if they have any confidence in the system now.

Meanwhile, local vets complain it clearly puts them in a difficult situation, calling into question the good relations between vet and cattle farmer. While they are confident they carry out the tests properly at the local level, they stress the ultimate decision on every animal found to be a positive reactor is always confirmed by Defra's vets.

Both farmers and local vets agree that the pre-movement testing regime under the Government's TB strategy - now due to be introduced at the end of this month - is a waste of time and money, and that the Scottish system of cattle tracing would be vastly more satisfactory.

Anthony Gibson, regional director of the National Farmers' Union, commented: "This development highlights the fact that the procedures involved in TB testing are clearly not above reproach. So the review Mr Bradshaw has called for into the instructions given to, and the interpretive material used by, local veterinary inspectors must be carried out urgently and thoroughly. Otherwise the whole system could break down. Farmers are asking why they have been losing cattle and getting very poor compensation if they cannot be certain that the tests are being done properly and the results may be relied on. A serious weakness in the system has been exposed, which needs to be put right very quickly. Everyone will now be querying their positive test findings - and this just fuels farmers' sense of grievance and frustration at the whole system."

Tony Yewdall, the North Devon farmer whose well-known herd of pedigree Guernsey dairy cattle has been hard hit by bovine TB, said that everyone in the industry had known for years that the testing regime was flawed.

"But with all its problems we've had to accept it, because there has been nothing else," he said. "After all, you're running a heck of a risk of missing something serious by not having tests."

His herd of 500 cattle is under movement restrictions because four animals had tested as positive reactors and been slaughtered. He is awaiting results on their carcasses. So far he has lost a total of 104 cattle through TB and the tests. The whole Kremers incident and the subsequent Defra climbdown highlighted the absurdity of the proposed pre-movement testing regime, said Devon beef farmer Richard Haddock, the NFU regional chairman.

"The Scottish tracing system has been proved to work very effectively, without hassle," he said.

"All it involves is a computer link between the British Cattle Movement Service, the markets and the State Veterinary Service, so everyone knows where cattle are and when they were last tested."

Pre-movement testing would cost a fortune, prove very difficult to undertake - and might have the effect of closing down cattle markets through lack of trade, which would put the industry in a very unhealthy position, he said. "I trust my vet to do the tests properly and I watch him while it's happening," he said. "If pre-movement testing is introduced the pressure on vets will be phenomenal, because there's not enough of them."

A senior Devon vet, who asked not to be named, insisted that he and his colleagues, acting for Defra as local veterinary inspectors, carried out their TB testing diligently.

"The interpretation arrived at by the practitioner who does the test always has to be confirmed by Defra's own vets," he stressed.

"This move by Ben Bradshaw over the Kremers' calf case is a peace-and-quiet decision. It's a political move, just to shut up Mrs Kremers, because Defra doesn't want to go to court."

He said pre-movement testing would be a bureaucratic nightmare. It had been adopted in the Republic of Ireland, and then dropped because it had been ineffective. The Scottish tracing system was vastly superior, he insisted.


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HOW BOVINE TB TESTS ARE CARRIED OUT

11:00 - 03 March 2006

The millions of cattle tested for TB each year go through a two-stage process spread over three days.

The vet initially measures the thickness of the animal's skin at two points on its neck. One of the points is then injected with a "tuberculin" (a sterile form of TB) of bovine TB. The other point is injected with a tuberculin of avian TB.

Three days later the vet measures the thickness of the skin at the two points again. If the bovine TB area has swelled significantly then the animal is deemed to have TB unless the other area has also swelled significantly, in which case the reaction may be caused by other bacteria.

In the case of Mrs Kremers' calf Fern, however, the vet concerned only measured the thickness of the skin at the bovine TB point on his initial visit.

The avian TB point was not measured. A spokesman for the State Veterinary Service described this as "sloppy" practice, but said that the two measurements were identical in the vast majority of cases.

But in a further twist the vet altered his original measurement when he revisited the farm three days later.

A spokesman for the SVS said the vet appeared to have used his "best professional judgement" to decide that the measurement he had taken three days earlier had been wrong. The spokesman acknowledged that this was not normal practice and was "not something I have come across before".

But he said Fern would have been deemed to have tested positive whichever measurement was used.

Mrs Kremers has argued that a positive reaction to the test only equated to a 20 per cent chance of the calf having the disease.

But the SVS defended the test, arguing that so-called "false positives" are very rare, occurring in only 0.5 per cent of cases. The test does, however, miss around 20 per cent of positive cases. A new, more accurate blood test has been developed but has not yet been validated for use in this country. http://www.westernmorningnews.co.uk/displayNode.jsp?nodeId=143632&comma =displayContent&sourceNode=142719&contentPK=14120647&folderPk=91672

'IT WAS A MATTER OF PRINCIPLE'

11:00 - 03 March 2006

Sheilagh Kremers has been engaged in a stand-off with the Government's slaughtermen since December, when her calf Fern tested positive for bovine TB. She twice turned away vets wanting to slaughter her calf and was preparing to take the case to court.

Last night, said she was "delighted" with the outcome. "There was no way I was going to let them get away with it," she said. "I would probably have given up by now if I hadn't seen the numbers had been changed. It was a matter of principle."

Mrs Kremers, of East Ogwell farm, Newton Abbot, had insisted that Fern should have a retest.

But the State Veterinary Service (SVS) and Mr Bradshaw insisted that the test had been conducted properly, that a second test was not allowed under European law and that the calf would have to be slaughtered.

Fern now faces a retest on Monday. A spokesman for the SVS insisted that the errors made amounted to a "technicality" and said that it was "likely" that the calf would fail the retest on Monday.

"If that happens we will value the animal, remove it and slaughter it," he said. Mrs Kremers, who believes the errors in the test go far wider than those admitted yesterday, said she was "pretty sure" that the calf would be cleared.

An inquiry will now seek to establish whether the errors made in Fern's case are an isolated case or a more widespread problem. Private vets who carry out testing on behalf of the SVS are likely to be circulated with a reminder of the legal procedure for conducting the test.

Last year, more than 25,000 cattle were slaughtered after failing the TB test. A spokesman for the SVS last night conceded it was "possible that healthy animals have been killed unnecessarily". But he said it was "very unlikely" to be a significant number.

Anthony Gibson, director of the National Farmers' Union in the South West, said the issues unearthed by Mrs Kremers' case were "very worrying". Mr Gibson said: "I am delighted for Mrs Kremers - this vindicates the stand she has taken from the outset. If she had not taken this stand then the calf would be dead and this vet - and possibly others - would be continuing to test cattle without using the correct procedure. But I am very concerned about what this says about the testing procedure. It will do nothing to restore farmers' confidence in the department, which is already very low.

"More than 25,000 cattle were consigned to premature slaughter last year as a result of this test procedure. The Government has always sworn that it was beyond reproach, but this case shows it clearly is not.

"Mrs Kremers has exposed a weakness in the testing system that urgently needs to be addressed. She has done a service to all farmers."

Anthony Steen, the Conservative MP for Totnes who took up the case with the Government, described it as a "victory for common sense".

Mr Steen said Mr Bradshaw deserved credit for admitting that his department had got it wrong. But he said ministers should also now accept that a badger cull was needed to help control TB.

He added: "This is a great victory for someone standing up for their rights. It is also a victory for common sense."

Mrs Kremers yesterday received a personal apology from senior officials at the SVS including chief executive Glenys Stacey and local manager Ben Bennett.

Mr Bradshaw apologised to Parliament for the errors, but a spokesman said he felt it was more appropriate for the apology to Mrs Kremers to come from the SVS.

The spokesman added: "The vet was carrying out work on behalf of the State Veterinary Service. The error that occurred was an operational one and as such required a response from the State Veterinary Service. The chief executive, Glenys Stacey, duly spoke to Mrs Kremers."


HOW I BEAT DEFRA

11:00 - 03 March 2006

She is just a grandmother with a warm manner and a hip problem, but yesterday Sheilagh Kremers became the hero of farmers everywhere.

Sheilagh, 63, fought to save her pedigree Dexter calf, sentenced to death after a TB testing regime she believed was massively flawed indicated it may have become infected.

And now Animal Health Minister Ben Bradshaw has been forced to apologise after admitting that the test administered to Mrs Kremers' bull calf Fern had been carried out wrongly.

The 5ft 5in smallholder, who has only 12 cattle on her farm, was driven to victory over a powerful Government department by her steely determination and a strong sense of principle.

Her calf will be retested, her costs of about 650 will be met, and there could be wider implications for future TB testing.

Mrs Kremers said she would have "crumbled" without a network of support that helped her win the David and Goliath battle. "It's great to think that one little person like me can take on the second-largest government department and force them to admit they were wrong. I only wish it hadn't taken two-and-a-half months to get there," she said.

Throughout her battle, Mrs Kremers drew courage from similar cases around the country, and now she can act as an inspiration to others. But she said: "I hope it would inspire those who feel they want to take up the battle, but I can't imagine many will, because Defra have only admitted a technical fault."

Mrs Kremers said a review of the TB testing procedure was her "ultimate aim". But she remained humble about the landmark victory. "I have been lucky. I had a small, cuddly calf that was very media-friendly. And the farm is not my main source of income, so I didn't have to fear losing my Defra subsidies by kicking up a fuss."

In a statement to Parliament, Exeter MP Mr Bradshaw said he "very much regretted the course of these events". He said the Government would pay Mrs Kremers' legal costs. And he launched an urgent inquiry to discover whether the errors picked up in the case were more widespread.

The vet who carried out the test has been suspended from TB testing duty. An investigation found that he had failed to take certain required measurements and changed others when testing Fern.

Defra's U-turn means Mrs Kremers will not go head-to-head with Defra in a court room. She has been gearing up to present a 23-page dossier to a magistrate. "I was looking forward to my day in court, and I think that's what's scared them," she said.

"Defra's methods of tactical bullying would have been exposed."

Yesterday's ruling comes as a massive embarrassment for Mr Bradshaw and the Government, which is gearing up for a big increase in the amount of TB testing in a bid to reduce the spread of the debilitating disease, cases of which increased by 40 per cent in the Westcountry last year.