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Muckspreader - Private Eye April 22 2008

One reason why any taxpayer might take a faint interest in the epidemic of TB which has been exploding through our cattle herds is that it is becoming extremely expensive. Not only is it already costing us £90 million a year. Within six years, according to the government's own figures, the total bill will have reached £2 billion, or £80 for every taxpayer in the country.

But have no fear. This column will not, for once, be mentioning the link between bovine TB and Britain's similarly exploding badger population. Our focus this time will be solely on the somewhat surreal recent events surrounding the supposedly scientific tests used by the Department for the Elimination of Farming and Rural Affairs (aka Defra and Blindra) to establish whether cattle have been exposed to TB, from whatever source. If they are shown to be infected, of course, they are shot at the taxpayers' expense - last year 27,589 of them. For years the recognised diagnostic method was known as the 'skin test'. This was generally accepted as scientifically reliable.

But two years ago, with a great fanfare from Defra, a new test was introduced from Australia, the so-called gamma interferon or 'blood test'.

So keen was Defra on its new testing procedure that, if it shows an animal as 'positive', no further test is necessary and the animal is shot. But if the skin test shows a negative result, then a blood test can be asked for as confirmation.

The odd thing about this is that even Defra admits on its website that the blood test is likely to show up many more positives than the skin test because it is much less specific.

To put it bluntly, the gamma interferon test is very much cruder than the skin test. It picks up exposure to all sorts of infections unrelated to cattle diseases, providing no way of distinguishing them.

So frustrated have many farmers become by the number of 'false positives' thrown up by the blood test that several have recently been queuing up, at considerable expense, to take Defra's insistence on gamma interferon to judicial review.

The first case to come before Mr Justice Mittings was brought by a group of organic farmers from Somerset, whose 486 cattle were tested last year under the skin test, only 14 showing positive. But when Defra insisted on retesting them, using gamma interferon, this rose to 86 (official figures show that no fewer than 81 percent of all cattle destroyed after being shown as positive by the blood test proved at post-mortem to show no sign of disease).

Mr Justice Mitting dismissed the arguments of the farmers' learned counsel, ruling that Defra's 'policy is lawful'.

Another farmer who has been waiting to bring Defra's policy to court, however, was Tom Maidment of Pewsey, 31 of whose cattle had been condemned after the blood test had shown them as positive. He pleaded in vain with Defra in London for the chance to have them retested using the skin test. But, unaware of this, his local Defra Animal Health Office instructed him that his cattle should be skin tested after all. The results showed a stonking negative. Not one of his animals showed any sign of having been exposed to TB. And what was Defra's response? It naturally ordered that all the animals should nevertheless be destroyed, at the taxpayers' expense.

Who gives a fig for science when someone else is footing the bill?  

























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