Bovine TB – OSPRI has been posting information about Hawke’s Bay outbreak for several months

Questions have been raised about Biosecurity Minister Damien O’Connor’s role in dealing with an outbreak of bovine tuberculosis in Hawke’s Bay.   The National Party’s agriculture spokesman, Todd Muller, has accused the minister of being slow to act .  tuberculosis outbreak in Hawke’s Bay.  Is it a fair cop?

OSPRI, the animal disease management agency which runs the national TB free programme, had confirmed an outbreak in Hawke’s Bay in April last year, but a disease management response wasn’t put in place until October, Mr Muller contends.

There have been more positive tests since then and one third of Hawke’s Bay will be under stock movement controls from March 1.

“Responses like this need to be fronted quickly for the sake of our valuable beef and dairy sector. The Minister needs to be across his portfolio and ensure these issues don’t sneak past him.”

But as noted on the Point of Order blog, whether the Minister has been caught napping depends on when he first learned (a) about the bovine tb and its rate of spread and (b) what was being done to deal with the outbreak – and when he should have first learned those things.

OSPRI hasn’t been secretive.

It has set up a dedicated webpage, which is regularly updated with information on disease management activity and upcoming possum control work.

In July last year, one of these updates said there were three infected herds in Hawke’s Bay – two in the Waitara Valley, the other in the Tutira Area. DNA typing of the TB
organism indicated the infections had come from a wildlife source.

The herds were being managed closely by OSPRI’s Disease Management Team.  TB-infected animals were being slaughtered.

Moreover an OSPRI press statement dated October 23 2019 publicly advised:

TB has been detected in several cattle herds in Hawke’s Bay since April this year, and a full disease management response is underway.

The confirmed infected herds are in the Waitara Valley and Matahorua in the northern area of Hawke’s Bay, bordering on the native forests and wildlife reservoir of the Central North Island.

All cases were detected as result of on-farm livestock TB tests. Infection has most likely been caused by contact with TB-infected possums. This is indicated by DNA analysis of the TB strain type, and by information on livestock management and stock movement data from NAIT.

The infected herds are all under close management, with tight restrictions on animal movement and intensive TB testing to ensure any other infected animals are identified and slaughtered as quickly as possible.

Herd owners on properties neighbouring the infected herds have been directly notified. Disease managers and extension staff are working with farmers in and around areas of infection risk are being contacted to organise TB tests for their herds at the earliest opportunity. 

This shows the outbreak was a matter of public record several months ago, although the  mainstream media have caught up with what is happening more recently.  A report headed Controls put in place to control bovine TB outbreak in Hawke’s Bay was posted by Stuff on February 11 and said:         

A bovine TB outbreak has occurred in a number of cattle in Hawke’s Bay.

The disease has been detected in 29 animals in nine herds near the Napier-Taupo Road since April 2019. One herd has since been cleared. Wildlife surveillance and DNA strain-typing indicates the source of infection is from wildlife north of the area.

OSPRI had expanded its regional office in Napier to lead a response and would control stock movements in the vicinity to prevent any spread of disease.

As an additional precautionary action, Stuff reported,

  • Ospri would expand the livestock movement control area in Hawke’s Bay from March 1 to prevent any potential spread of disease;
  • Staff at OSPRI’s regional office in Napier will hold information days later in February.

In Parliament this week, Forestry Minister Shane Jones answered questions on behalf of the Minister of Agriculture and Biosecurity.

Mr Jones said Mr O’Connor had been informed early last October “of a small increase in tuberculosis (TB) cases in the Hawke’s Bay”.

Hansard records this and the follow-up questions:

Todd Muller: If the Minister has known since last October, how has this gone from a first detection in April 2019 to the largest outbreak of TB in Hawke’s Bay in the last 20 years?

Hon SHANE JONES: That is an exaggeration. The Minister was further advised on 28 January that this increase was considered a very small cluster of bovine TB infection. It’s important that scaremongering not be allowed to plague this House, as this is not considered as an outbreak. There is a small cluster of bovine infections, and Operational Solutions for Primary Industries New Zealand (OSPRI) is extending their TB-free programme to manage and return Hawke’s Bay to TB-free status.

National MP Lawrence Yule asked why it had taken six months for OSPRI to arrange trapping and poisoning operations surrounding a property that had nine affected animals.

Hon SHANE JONES: As I said, this is the not the case where we should allow scaremongering to inform these issues. Possum control operations have been brought forward and planned. Whether or not there were problems with access to adjoining blocks of land is not something unusual when the Crown, through the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), deals with the occasional outbreak of TB.

Kieran McAnulty: Is the Minister aware that despite the fact that since the early 2000s cases of TB have gone down from 1,700, to 26 last year, there have been numerous clusters of infections over the last decade, all of which have been successfully managed?

Hon SHANE JONES: There’s a modest mop-up being addressed in the Hawke’s Bay, but to suggest that things are worsening is, unfortunately, a lame attempt at scaremongering, and it will not succeed.

Todd Muller: How can he honestly stand in this House and say that first detection last April, six months of no poisoning, expanding to nine farms, and now, on 1 March, there’s a no movement zone across 500 properties in Hawke’s Bay—the largest in that region for 20 years—is just minor and something we shouldn’t be concerned about as a Parliament?

Hon SHANE JONES: This is not a situation—although the member may resemble it—of the pea weevil. This is a problem that is being dealt with in the context of MPI’s services. Local farmers have been regularly updated, and it is quite unbecoming for members to try and generate political capital from scaremongering.

Mr Muller later released the press statement in which he accused Mr O’Connor of being slow to act.   

But the TBfree livestock updates and OSPRI press statement posted last year suggest he – and the mainstream news media – could have sniffed out what was happening some months ago.

Mr Muller tells us in his press statement that TB is a devastating disease and it is important outbreak responses are timely and thorough.

“New Zealand has been working towards eradicating TB for decades and the last National Government invested heavily in achieving this, with an extra $69.8 million of funding provided in 2016 and the Predator Free 2050 plan kicked off, which would prevent pests like possums and ferrets spreading the disease.

“Responses like this need to be fronted quickly for the sake of our valuable beef and dairy sector. The Minister needs to be across his portfolio and ensure these issues don’t sneak past him.”

But it looks like Mr Muller could have raised questions about the management of the outbreak a few months earlier, too.

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