With confirmed infected properties doubling in the last six months and MPI apologising for unacceptable delays in tracing, the big question is whether eradication is still feasible

With confirmed infected properties doubling in the last six months and MPI apologising for unacceptable delays in tracing, the big question is whether eradication is still feasible

It is now two years since Mycoplasma bovis was first identified in New Zealand. In those two years there have been 178 farms with confirmed infections. In the last six months the cumulative number of confirmed infections has doubled.

The big question is whether eradication is still feasible. 

It is now clear that the number of infected properties is going to rise beyond the Government’s estimates prepared back in May 2018. At that time, the Government committed to a heavyweight eradication campaign. At that same time, the expected total number of infected properties was estimated at 192, extending out over five to ten years.

By the end of 2018, the public messaging was that MPI was running faster than the disease and that MPI was catching up with the transmission pathways. MPI was expressing high confidence that eradication would be achieved. DairyNZ echoed these sentiments even more strongly.

Now, in July 2019, there has been a big shift of sentiment from within MPI. An internal report, prepared by MPI’s Office of the Chief Science Adviser and now released to the public, acknowledges that MPI’s senior managers were mistaken as to the progress they were making.

MPI now acknowledges that its internal information systems were inadequate. As a consequence, and prior to mid-April, senior management had no appreciation as to the backlog of well over 1000 properties that needed tracing, nor that this backlog was increasing rapidly.

This is a remarkable situation. Some of us working outside the official system and in close contact with events in the field knew that MPI was struggling greatly with the tracing. We knew that it was taking up to six months and more for MPI to follow up on specific traces. We tried to alert senior management in MPI to the implications of what was happening.

Quite simply, the MPI system has not been fit for purpose, and that is what MPI is now acknowledging.  The Director General of MPI has apologised publicly.

It is now time for a stocktake. Is eradication still feasible or has the disease travelled too far? This will be a key question for the Technical Advisory Group (TAG) when they next meet.

In situations like this, there usually has to be a ‘fall guy’. However, in this case the newly appointed Director General of MPI was bequeathed a terrible situation when he took up the job last November. One has to go back and ask who was responsible for the fundamental structure of MPI BioSecurity, largely put in place before Mycoplasma bovis struck.

The immediate question is whether there are enough band aids to allow the eradication program to get back on track, or is eradication a lost cause.

Currently (early July), as well as the infected properties, there are 236 properties on movement control (NOD) and another 627 properties under active surveillance. The MPI expectation is that between 10% and 15% of the NOD properties will go positive. This will then set up a new series of traces. And so it goes on.

There can be little doubt that the tracing backlog has allowed Mycoplasms bovis to once again run ahead of MPI. With hindsight, it is now doubtful if MPI was ever catching up. So, can MPI now make up for lost ground?

DairyNZ is telling its farmers that the new revelations do not threaten the program. That is simply public relations propaganda to keep up confidence in the program in the meantime.  Let’s see what the Technical Advisory Group (TAG) has to say when they next meet. 

The last report from the TAG was submitted back in January, following a November 2018 meeting, and released in February 2019. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then.

Going forward, MPI is flagging big differences in testing procedures. In particular, they will no longer be searching for the organism itself in milk using the PCR test. Instead, they will be undertaking bulk-milk screening with an antibody test and then following this up with blood testing of suspect herds, once again searching for antibodies.

Last spring, MPI tested all herds on six occasions using the PCR test. They found only three positive herds, and they highlighted this in their messaging. What they did not say was that another 43 herds (or thereabouts) not already on their radar had shown up with antibody testing of the milk.

MPI had hoped that most or perhaps all of these bulk-milk antibody tests would be false positives. That has now proven to be incorrect.

MPI was also exceptionally slow, despite claiming they were being transparent, to acknowledge that they were determining herds to be positive, and not just at risk, in situations where high proportions of the herd were showing up as antibody positive on blood tests.

In the early months of this year, some of us knew that the published numbers and associated story did not tally up with what we were seeing in the field. It was only in late March and into April that MPI started to acknowledge what was happening.

It took quite some teasing-out before MPI came clean as to the new assessment procedures and criteria that they had been using for many months. Then in mid-April, on the Thursday afternoon just before Easter, came the additional announcement that there was going to be a big surge in farms to be tested.

I will give just one example here, of many that I could give, of a farm that has been caught up by the delays, and the further challenges this has created.

This farm is actually three separate herds, with over 2500 cows in total. It first came to the attention of MPI from a bulk-milk antibody test way back in August 2018. However, it was not until late January 2019 that the farmer was informed that he was to be tested. Then in April the farm was confirmed positive.

There are several key features about what has happened. First, the farm is NAIT-compliant and there is no ‘smoking gun’ as to how it arrived. Second, there will be many traces to be made.

The farmer estimates that there have been about 150 outward movements of animals over the last five years and that the progeny from these farms have been widely used as service bulls on other farms. Those 150 outward movements are just the first stage movements. Subsequent movements will have fanned out from there. 

In this article I have only addressed issues that directly influence program feasibility. Alongside this, many farmers are struggling greatly from flaws in the compensation system. The notion that affected farmers should be neither better nor worse of as a consequence of compensation is not what is happening.   

It was all supposed to be a team effort, but some members of the team have been deserted and have lost their livelihood, and others are currently in great difficulty. I think Federated Farmers could be doing a lot more in Wellington on behalf of these farmers.

MPI also needs to go back and ask itself whether it really understands the compensation problems that are occurring. Once again, it seems their own internal systems are less than adequate.

*Keith Woodford was Professor of Farm Management and Agribusiness at Lincoln University for 15 years through to 2015. He is now Principal Consultant at AgriFood Systems Ltd. His articles are archived at http://keithwoodford.wordpress.com. You can contact him directly here.

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A good summary, Keith, and confirms, exactly, what you have been pointing to since the start of your articles on this topic. Two obvious questions:

  1. If the systems, structure and culture of MPI is 'not fit for purpose' in this whole effort, what is your feeling as to the way forward?
  2. Is M.Bovis, in your expert opinion, eradicable now, and if not - is it worth persisting with the notion that it is, and what effects would this acknowledgement have in practice?

Waymad, As you know I have been skeptical from the outset, now two years ago. And I remain of the view that the challenges to eradication, combined with the human and financial costs, are too great. But the key perspective going forward will not be what I think but the advice given to Government by the TAG.
In that context, I have been pleased to write a report for the TAG at the request of MPI and as a consultancy. There is no way that MPI would have requested that of me back last year. So there has been a significant change within MPI in that people like me are being listened to.
I have no expectation that Government will pull the plug on the eradication program at this stage. But I do hope that some very clear criteria will be laid out as to red and green lights. I would hope that the feasibility or otherwise of eradication will be much more clear cut by the end of this year. By that time there will be strong data as to the specificity of the bulk milk ELISA, in other words the proportion of ELISA positives that are coming up as confirmed infections. Also, there will be a new set of bulk milk ELISAs coming through in the spring. Note these are just my own thoughts, and these thoughts, although evidence driven, do not imply anything as to the influence that I may or may not have.

Thanks, Keith. The fact that MPI has been prepared to ditch the spin and ask for advice is a good sign. As you've said, the human cost in business interruption or destruction, and the slowness of compensation, will have decadal effects. And that's still relatively unacknowledged, at least publicly. FF should be in there red-bands and all, but is strangely mute.....

Waymad I doubt the bureaucrats will ever ditch the spin. This apology is more spin. There should be resignations. They blamed us farmers. It was us not using nait properly. It turns out they had all the nait info they needed and didnt use it. The day I was phoned to tell me I had animals of interest. The lady that sold me those animals had approx 100 steers in the local sale. MPI had had this lady farmer on their radar for some time yet failed to restrict her trading. Those animals at the sale were in about 12 different lines as I recall. They could have gone to a dozen different buyers. The whole shebang has been bullshit. It will never work. It isnt working. How do you track down something that doesnt cause illness. Doesnt show up in testing. In a land that moves cattle around like no other on the planet. Sometimes you have to see things for what they are. In this case the industry heads are all lined up pissing in the wind.

The farm you highlight. Are you effectively saying there have been no inward movement of animals so no known connection to the "original" deseased farm?
Seemed from the start that our farm systems which rely so heavily on stock movements doomed us. The inter island movements continuing seemed illogical and only based on commercial considerations not desease eradication.

No, I am not saying there have been no inward movements. But I am saying there have been no inward movements that can be linked back to the presumed original farm. So, it is a real puzzle as to how it got there, and in what time-frame.
As I understand it, the Government did look at using Cook Strait as a barrier but they would have been required to notify that to overseas countries and this would have supposedly triggered issues of trade access. No-one overseas is concerned about us having Mycoplasma bovis because they all have it already, but putting in place internal barriers for whatever reason would supposedly automatically lead to other countries asking what the hell was going on, and was there really some other issue as well.

Thanks Keith. I and I'm sure others really appreciate the replies you post on all your subjects they tend to help create a much clearer picture than the spin we so often have to try and wade our own way through.
I can see the politics of closing the strait were problematic but this disease is very much about stock movement isnt it, and I'm not sure we have our head around that yet. Surely we need to change our systems and thinking by more than just a NAIT upgrade.

Did MPI at any point in time scale up their on the ground resource? I would have thought somewhere like the UK/Ireland which are geographically isolated from Europe and having dealt with F&M, BSE and whatever else would have a workforce up to speed that would be able to integrate quickly and try and get ahead of the infection spread. Or give some good advice from experience as to whether the battle was already lost.
Two years now. That's quite sobering.
My continuing sympathies to those caught up in this utter mess with it seems still no light at the end of any tunnel.

Yes, MPI did scale up rapidly. The problem was that the plane had to fly as it was being built. And of course that is always a recipe for disaster.
The TAG is largely made up of overseas experts (so-called) but these people have never been part of a Mycoplasma bovis eradication program.
Foot and Mouth is much easier to eradicate than Mycoplasma bovis. Infected animals are easy to identify. The response would be brutal, dramatic and effective. In contrast, apart from the original identified case of the van Leeuwens, not one farm has been picked up as a result of clinical cases. There is at least one other case of clinical infection in a dairy herd but that was only picked up after the herd had been identified as 'at risk'. The hidden nature of Mycoplasma bovis changes everything when it comes to effective eradication.
Keith W

Another sad tale of state incompetency unfolds. Reminds me a bit of the PSA decease in the kiwifruit chapter.

Keith back in May last year MPI published for the last time the number of forward traces. Forward traces being the number of farms where there were possible hidey holes for mbovis. That number was 5000. MPI stopped publishing this number at that point. Simply it was a figure that gave lie to any idea of eradication. I wonder what that figure has grown to now.

I too recall that quoted figure of 5000, but I don't know how accurate it was and how it was calculated.
I think that thee are now very few farms who are not, one way or another, a potential trace.
For example, as of this week there 239 properties under NOD and another 640 under active surveillance.
My understanding is that there will have been no tracing undertaken from the farms that are under active surveillance. And it will be many months before the active surveillance properties either progress to NOD or RP, at which time the forward tracing from them will begin, or alternatively, those properties will be cleared at that time.
Accordingly, I think it would be very difficult for any dairy farmer or dairy beef grazier to say with total confidence that their farms are free of potential traces.
This weekend I am working with another farmer who went IP last year, with over 2000 animals having to be slaughtered, and who has now gone NOD on his restocked farm, with a line of cattle having to be slaughtered in the last few days under a S121 NOD. And that is just the start of that story!

Keith your reply is nothing short of explosive. I am not surprised, however actually reading it is breathtaking.
Let me get this right. If I was told I was under active surveillance, of which there are 640 properties, I could trade freely. So basically there is no stopping of the flow of mbovis into the further reaches of New Zealand. Yet 2000 head of cattle from one owner have been killed and restocking he has again been hit with a positive test. And is killing his new herd.
Whats that about the test for insanity. Doing the same thing over and over. Do they really expect a different result.
Fed farmers Beef and Lamb Dairy NZ what on earth are you doing?

I have come to the conclusion the politicians in this government are complete suckers.
They are falling for the spin from the bureaucrats and do gooders like no other recent government.
I too believed in the military weapons being retrieved. Until I sat down with three male rellies who proceeded to tell me it was most sporting rifles as well. While in my ignorance I pictured the likes of AK 47s and the like disappearing out of gun cabinets. In truth it was the 10 or 7 shot 22 that would be taken.
I was flabbergasted. What a bunch of morons. The poor old ever jamming 22 was a weapon of mass destruction now.
So millions of dollars is wasted in healthy cow killing and pop gun stealing. Just moronic. What next?