Taxpayers will soon face a £1bn-a-year bill if bovine tuberculosis continues to spread at current rates, beef industry leaders have claimed.

The annual cost to the government of dealing with the disease will rise to £1.05bn by 2015 if the year-on-year number of cattle compulsorily slaughtered due to bovine TB measures continues to increase by 40%. The increase last year was 42%.

Forecasts made by the National Beef Association are based on government figures showing that the public cost of bovine tuberculosis in England and Wales will amount to £100m this year.

“This increase is highly unlikely to be additionally funded by the Treasury and will have to be funded by cutting other DEFRA work,” claimed NBA chairman Christopher Thomas-Everard.

The government should stop “messing about” with plans to test a badger vaccine to stop the disease spreading from wildlife to cattle, said Mr Thomas-Everard. Decisive action was needed immediately, he added.

“If the disease continues to spread – and some farms remain year after year under restriction by repeat re-infection – the cost is likely to grow to £200mwithin three years alone, long before vaccination can possibly have any effect.”

At current rates, the cost of TB control in cattle would become unaffordable, yet there was a statutory duty on the government to eradicate it. Even if the disease increased by only 25% a year, the cost would still soar to £477mby 2015.

“There is no way the government can afford this sort of money. What are they going to do? The only answer is that they will throw the cost back to farmers, by which time it will be too late.”

DEFRA acknowledged there had been long-term upward trend in new TB incidents. But the rate of increase varied significantly over short time-frames. It was, therefore, wrong to base long-term forecasts on statistics covering only a short period.

In the past year, there had been a significant increase in the amount of TB compensation paid, said a DEFRA spokesman. But this was as much due to the marked rise in cattle prices as to the increase in numbers of reactors disclosed.

“We continue to work closely with stakeholders, and invest heavily in research, to enhance the existing disease control framework and reduce the impacts of the disease on industry and the taxpayer.

Measures were in place to reduce spread and incidence of TB, the spokesman added. They included regular testing, taking a zero tolerance approach to overdue tests, and pre-movement testing.

“Future spend on TB compensation will depend on the numbers of TB infected cattle disclosed and cattle prices achieved on the open market.Current forecasts suggest a similar spend on TB compensation for 2009/10 as last year.”

The human cost

In the UK 453 peopleare believed to have developed the bovine form of tuberculosis between 1994 and 2007. Possible farm-related cases include:

• Government researcher is suspected of contracting TB from badgers at the Food and Environment Research Agency, Woodchester Park, Gloucestershire. Another 30 people are tested for the disease (2009).

• The disease crosses species and infects a Cornish woman, believed to be a veterinary nurse, who is treated for the serious respiratory infection. Her daughter and the family dog are also tested for the disease (2008).

• Six people contract bovine TB in a Birmingham outbreak which kills one man. Experts say those involved are connected by a “complex social web”. The outbreak source is believed to be a man who drank unpasteurised milk (2006).

• Vet working in north Devon contracts bovine TB after examining an infected alpaca, which she put down before carrying out a post-mortem on the animal. The disease later manifests itself as a lesion on her thumb (2005).

• Four-year-old girl developed two lumps on her neck which doctors at first believe were caused by a glandular problem. The lumps burst and a consultant paediatrician later diagnoses the girl as suffering from atypical TB (2005).

Costs of TB

 

£m

2008-9

100

2009-10

140

2010-11

196

2011-12

274

2012-13

384

2013-14

538

2014-15

753

2015-16

1,054

Source: NBA