30 October 1998

MAFFoverlooking immunity booster for TB in cattle

By Johann Tasker

GOVERNMENT scientists have conducted secret tests into tuberculosis in badgers because they believe that MAFF officials have deliberately overlooked a possible method of boosting immunity to the disease in cattle.

The scientists claim that MAFF is so keen to verify a link between TB in badgers and cattle that it has failed to fund research into potential methods of reducing on-farm outbreaks of the disease.

The ministrys bill for TB, including the start of the five-year study recommended by the Krebs committee, will be an estimated £22m this year.

But the secret tests, which have received no government funding, aim to discover whether TB outbreaks could be reduced by feeding badgers and cattle increased levels of trace elements.

A proposal to study the connection between trace elements and TB resistance was made as long ago as 1983. But MAFF officials rejected the suggestion, saying it was not worth pursuing.

Scientists have since independently analysed the trace element content of about 250 badger livers at MAFFs veterinary investigation centre at Sutton Bonnington. The test results have been kept at the Central Veterinary Laboratory in Surrey for the past year.

Despite repeated phone calls, MAFF officials refused to say whether the test findings would ever be made public.

Critics said the revelation that MAFF had refused to look seriously at the trace element theory went against pledges by junior farm minister Jeff Rooker to explore every opportunity to see how TB could be prevented in cattle.

"This is almost as if MAFF is a secret society," said Bill Jordan, a retired vet, who works for the conservation group Care for the Wild International (CWI). "If they really want to get to the bottom of this and help the farmers, they really ought to pull out all the stops."

Own study

Until that happens, CWI is raising money to fund its own study of on-farm trace element levels. The project is being co-ordinated by Chris Fairfax, a Dorset-based solicitor, who runs the Countryside Protection Group.

"We are not saying that trace elements are the answer but the theory should be looked at properly," Mr Fairfax said. "We are now trying to find farmers willing to participate in trace element trials on their land."

&#8226 MAFFS pilot study of the risk factors associated with TB in cattle, the precursor of a comprehensive survey which will begin next year, will get underway next month. Junior farm minister Jeff Rooker has appealed to farmers to give MAFF staff "every assistance in supplying the information they need".

The government was determined to find the answers needed to tackle the problem of TB in cattle. "The more information we have, the better our ability to establish which factors are most likely to increase the risk to cattle," he said.

MAFF will use two questionnaires to collect information on things like cattle movements, husbandry practices, wildlife on farms, and the local environment. The first will be applied to farms where there has been TB, while the other will be aimed at TB-free farms. About 30 farms will be involved in the pilot study. Answers will be reviewed and then, from Jan, the information will be used to gain information following all TB breakdowns nationally.